Travel Security: Keeping it in Perspective – Part 2

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Continuing with the theme of keeping travel security in perspective that we introduced in the last article I’d like to stress again the need to keep a realistic and practical view of your personal security when traveling overseas and to avoid alarmist perceptions that often follow incidents like the Sarai Sierra case and the sexual assault of the Swiss tourist.   Of course it’s equally important to avoid the rose-colored glasses and happy complacency exhibited by some other travelers who may have engaged in risky behavior and done foolish things yet got through it unscathed and then proceed to tell everyone who will listen how safe it is and how important it is not to be paranoid.

So how do we find the middle ground and get as realistic as possible an idea of the risks of travel to a particular place?  The first is by conducting open source research on your destination.  Corporations and their business travelers can usually access subscription services that specialize in providing travel security information.  They also have access to organizations like the US State Department’s overseas Security Advisory Council that provide guidance to the business community.  Individual travelers don’t usually have access to these resources so we will look at more available methods.  One place to begin is government issued travel advice.  For US travelers that can be found at www.travel.state.gov .   Other nations also publish travel advice as well.  The UK Foreign office information can be found here: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country; Australia’s is here: http://www.smartraveller.gov.au ; Canada’s is here: http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories .  By looking at several different nations travel guidance for the same location you can begin to piece together common themes and trends relating to personal security.

One thing that is important to keep in mind when reviewing travel security advise for a location – whether the advice is coming from a government agency or a private sector provider-  is that most of this advice is written for a wide audience.  That means the guidance is written for the backpacker to the business traveler and everyone in between even though their individual risk profiles may vary greatly.  This is why context is so important.  For example there may be a problem with buses being hijacked en route between towns in the country where you will be traveling.  Maybe the hijackers typically take the passengers off the bus and rob them and sometimes there may be gratuitous violence even when the criminals’ demands are met.  While that is a serious security concern in a general sense and may be very relevant to a backpacker or budget traveler if you are planning a business trip to the capital city of that country, will spend the entire time either in your hotel, at meetings or at dinner and you will not be traveling in rural areas, going from town to town or using the bus it may not be particularly significant for you.

When reading travel advice please keep the notion of context in mind.  Using the above example of the business trip to the capital city imagine there is also a significant problem with taxi-related crime in that city.  In particular there is a problem with the robbery or express kidnapping of travelers arriving at the capital city’s airport.  In that case it might be very relevant to your business trip and a risk that needs to be mitigated.  You might for example mitigate this risk by arranging for transportation from a known company in advance and establish recognition protocols with the driver (not just a sign with your name on it).

After reviewing several different reports from different governments you should have an idea of crime trends and similar security issues at the location in question.  You can pursue this further by conducting internet searches on key words at various news websites to pull up accounts of specific crimes and so forth.  This may also provide you more detail and help you to understand common modus operandi.  Keep in mind however that in many locations crimes go unreported or don’t appear in the press.

You can also look at various travel websites and forums and see what other travelers and expatriates say about a particular location.  CAUTION:  It’s very important to use critical thinking when reading or listening to anecdotal accounts from other travelers.  There is a great deal of misinformation out there and nothing should be taken at face value.  That said this can be a way of building on what you already know.  This is especially if you come across recurring themes.

How much effort should you devote to this research?  It should largely be dictated by the place you are going to and the circumstances of your trip.  A solo female traveler hiking or cycling through Latin America for three months should devote much more time than two business travelers going to Paris for two days.  As you begin your research it may also become evident that you need to go further to clarify or de-conflict information that you are finding.

Additionally you should go more in depth with this research when it comes to selecting accommodations, modes of travel and other aspects of your trip.  The more you know and the more you plan the less likely you are to encounter a problem and the better you’ll deal with a problem if one should arise.

The important aspect is to maintain perspective when considering security facets of your travel.  Understand what threats exist and look at them in the context of your trip.  Don’t become unduly afraid of things that don’t pose a real risk to you and don’t be complacent or blind to things that do.

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Travel Security: Keeping it in Perspective

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The dramatic disappearance and murder of US solo tourist Sarai Sierra in Istanbul and the recent gang rape of a Swiss female tourist in India have brought attention to the darker side of travel.  In the wake of these incidents, in particular the Sarai Sierra case there were numerous ill-informed comments by columnists and bloggers calling Sierra foolish for traveling solo as a woman to a predominately Muslim country.  Many of these comments were made by people with little or no experience traveling overseas.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Sarai Sierra incident here is a very brief synopsis:  Sarai Sierra a married mother of two from Staten Island, New York made a trip alone to Istanbul, Turkey to engage in her photography hobby.  This was Sierra’s first overseas trip.  While in Istanbul she stayed in a rented room in a less-desirable section of the city.  She made side trips to Amsterdam and Munich – these side trips caused much wild speculation in the early days of her disappearance.   Throughout the trip she kept in regular contact with her family in the US.  The day before she was supposed to leave Istanbul and return home she reportedly planned to take photos at the Galata Bridge, a prominent landmark.  She never made her flight back to the US and her disappearance got wide media attention in the US and Turkey.

There were many theories immediately following her disappearance, many of them ridiculous:  She had been snatched by human traffickers; she was a drug mule; she was a spy; she was being held by someone she met on the Internet; she had spent tens of thousands of dollars on the trip despite her modest background.   These stories were fueled by the side trips that she made to Amsterdam and Munich, the fact that the only camera she brought for her photography was a smart phone and the fact that she seemed very trusting of strangers she met on the Internet.  In the end the sad truth was much simpler.  It appears Sierra ventured into an area frequented by drug addicts and homeless people to take photographs of the city’s ancient walls and was attacked and bludgeoned to death.  Her alleged attacker, a homeless man was subsequently captured in Eastern Turkey trying to flee across the border to Syria.

While it’s true there were some things that Sierra did that were ill advised and she may have been too trusting of people she didn’t know well these factors did not directly contribute to her death.  The decision to go into a dangerous neighborhood by herself did.  She did do some things right like maintaining regular contact with her family and home and keeping them aware of what she was doing and where she was going.  While we don’t seek to blame the victim there are valuable lessons that can be learned from someone else’s mistakes and missteps so we owe it to ourselves to study incidents like these, to analyze them and determine how we might better protect ourselves by doing some things differently.

Istanbul is a city I am somewhat familiar with having done several security assessments and other tasks there over a period of years as well as vacationing there so I have seen it from several perspectives.  Like any other big city Istanbul has its share of crime and its share of scam artists who will take advantage of unsuspecting tourists.  There is a low level threat of terrorism from an assortment of leftist and Kurdish separatist groups which doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average traveler.  Istanbul does have a reputation as a crossroads for human trafficking but again this activity is unlikely to affect a tourist.  In the wake of Sarai Sierra’s disappearance there were plenty of derogatory comments in the media about her traveling to a hostile Muslim country alone.  Istanbul is actually a very secular city and while there are cultural differences western dress and behavior is accepted and the population can hardly be described as hostile.

In the India incident a Swiss woman and her husband were on a cycling trip in Central India and decided to camp overnight in a forest area in Madhya Pradesh.  Later that night the couple was attacked by a group of men with sticks.  The husband was beaten and tied to a tree and the woman was gang raped.   Indian police later criticized the couple’s decision to camp in that location.  While the police criticism was very insensitive it underscores both the need to consider security implications and also the problems with reliance or confidence in local police authorities.

The important thing to remember when thinking about travel security – whether it be as a solo traveler, a female traveler, a couple, a family or whatever is to keep things in perspective.  There are many misguided, misinformed people, albeit some with good intentions that are engaged in fear-mongering and exaggeration of the threat.  On the other side of the coin there are those who disregard travel security advice as paranoia.  It’s important to walk the middle ground.  Learn about the threats that exist at the location where you are going.  Look at them in the context of your trip and what you plan to be doing.  Take prudent and reasonable steps to mitigate the risk and plan for worst case scenarios so you are prepared should things go wrong.