Global Security Special: Intelligence Quotient
Published: May 2009
By Stephen Whitlock
In a world increasingly fraught with risk, information is the smart traveler's secret weapon.
On November 6, 2002, the U.S. State Department issued a stark announcement to Americans worldwide reiterating earlier warnings. "As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists and their sympathizers will seek softer targets," it read. "American citizens may be targeted for kidnapping or assassination."
The caution came soon after the deadly bombing of the Sari Club in Kuta Beach, Bali, an island that had been considered by many travelers to be a relatively safe haven within Indonesia. The attacks of September 11, however, had already proved that no place is immune to terrorism. So how should travelers respond to the threat of further atrocities?Opinions range widely. "Americans shouldn't do anything that would cause them to stand out," says Neil Livingstone, chairman of Global Options, a risk management and security company. "In these difficult times you can encounter problematic people almost anywhere." On the other hand, Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJet Travel Intelligence, which monitors security issues in 182 countries, urges travelers to keep the threat in proportion: "You have to step back and take the macro view. The probability of being caught up in these kinds of situations is extremely remote." To minimize the risk, however slight, there are simple precautions you can take.
Surf Before You Fly Log on to the State Department's Web site for regular alerts about places of particular concern (www.travel.state.gov). The agency also provides extensive country profiles, detailing additional dangers such as street crime and outbreaks of disease.Keep in mind that other governments sometimes have a different take on things. On October 24, for instance, Denmark reported on its Web site that it had received information that terrorists might be targeting resorts in Phuket, Thailand. Less than a week later, Britain's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk/travel) followed suit, warning travelers to "exercise extreme caution" there. As of press time, however, the United States had not cited Phuket as a potential hot spot; it did issue a broader warning covering all of Southeast Asia. It's worth gathering advice from several governments—we also recommend Canada's Consular Affairs Bureau (www.voyage.gc.ca) and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (www.dfat.gov.au)—to round out your perspective.
Talk to Experts Several companies specialize in providing security advice and information to travelers.
iJet Travel Intelligence (410/573-3860; www.ijet.com) supplies details about the safety of the countries on your itinerary and will send text messages to your mobile phone or PDA updating you on developing situations. International SOS (800/523-8662; www.internationalsos.com) goes a step further: in addition to a comprehensive package of information and advice
, it provides evacuation services worldwide and medical aid at 21 international clinics
. Global Options (202/293-2490; www.globaloptions.com) works extensively with corporations and government agencies; for individuals, the company can supply basic security assessment and even teams of experts to travel with you.
Keep an Eye—and an Ear—on the News Choose a hotel that carries CNN, the BBC, or a similar news source, and read local papers. "Americans should keep up with the news wherever they go, even in Western Europe," says Livingstone. "They should watch cable news in their hotel room and carry a world band radio to listen to the BBC World Service." Before your trip, read local papers on-line to get a sense of the political and economic backdrop. The Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org/reading/news) has an extensive list of links.
Avoid Crowds Any location that attracts large groups of Americans might be more susceptible. "It seems like twenty-twenty hindsight, but you could say that being in a bar in Bali that's a well-known hangout for foreign visitors and expats, on the weekend of a big rugby match, is an obvious risk," says Stephen Halliday, vice president of marketing for the Americas at International SOS. Livingstone points to tour buses as another questionable choice: "They almost have targets on them."
Eat with the Locals . . . Even if you're homesick for a burger and fries, think twice about fast-food restaurants. McDonald's, Burger King, and Sbarro have all been targeted by terrorists in the past. "Evidence has shown that places identified as American businesses are attacked," says Halliday.
. . . And Try to Dress Like Them, Too Blending in goes beyond avoiding Bermuda shorts and camera straps. "American travelers shouldn't wear loud, garish U.S. sports-team clothes," says Halliday. "It singles you out, probably more for street crime than terrorism." He adds that using your business card as a luggage tag might make you more of a kidnapping target, and that in certain countries, wearing religious jewelry can bring unwelcome attention.
Announce Your Arrival If you are traveling to a moderate-risk area, carry contact details for the U.S. Embassy and consular office (listed at www.travel.state.gov/). In higher-risk locations, register when you arrive so that officers know you are in the country and, if necessary, can help you get home.
Plan Your Exit International SOS specializes in helping people out of dangerous situations. Another company, MEDJET Assistance (800/963-3538; www.medjetassistance.com), offers medical evacuation to a hospital in the United States; coverage starts at $205 per year. "We're like AAA for your body," says spokesman Michael Checkoway. "If you ever need air medical transport, it's there for you." Travelers who take regular medication should carry some extra doses, in case their return is delayed.
Follow Your Leader In some destinations, there's safety in numbers. Still, says Halliday, "if you're in a tour group, be comfortable that the tour company, and the tour leader, have a contingency plan. They should take the subject of security seriously, and if they're going to places of higher risk, the tour participants should know what to do in case of an emergency."
Keep Your Wits About You Vigilance is paramount. "Don't rubberneck," says Livingstone. "If you see something bad happening, go away from it, not toward it." In other words, alongside your socks, passport, tickets, and phrase book, pack some common sense.
Bali: Resorts Respond
Since the tragic terrorist attack in Bali last October that killed more than 190 people, many of them foreign tourists, area resorts have stepped up security measures. Most properties we spoke with, including Ritz-Carlton and Amanresorts, were short on specifics, saying that discussing security would compromise it. But a few did offer details. Begawan Giri is checking all vehicles that approach the property; only guests are permitted in the residence and villa areas of the resort, and deliveries must be hand-carried onto the grounds. The Four Seasons Resort Bali, Jimbaran Bay, has hired six police officers to guard the entrances 24 hours a day, increased its security staff by nearly one half, and made arrangements with the local pecalang, traditional village security personnel.