Special Series: Common Sense When Traveling Abroad

7 MINS READJul 10, 2011 | 18:45 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the seventh installment in a series in which Stratfor discusses the many facets of travel security. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

This travel security series aims not to frighten readers, but to prepare them for travel and everyday life abroad. Traveling abroad is generally a positive experience, and while travelers who leave their comfort zone for a foreign land should be aware of their surroundings, they should not feel fearful or paranoid — which can actually be counterproductive to good security. While there are risks, travelers who exercise proper situational awareness and follow the basic rules outlined in this travel security series, can enjoy the experiences and perspective traveling offers.

It is always important that travelers take time to observe and think before acting. A traveler can learn a tremendous amount about a location and its customs by paying attention to the surrounding environment. Travelers should make a conscious effort to study their environment in an effort to determine what is normal — and what is not. If something feels wrong, even subconsciously, it probably is. This process also works in an emergency: first in recognizing the threat, then understanding it, making a plan to address it and finally acting to either counter the threat or escape the situation. Finally, a traveler must trust his or her instincts about what is normal and what is anomalous or even potentially dangerous.

Be Smart

Travelers who engage in illegal activity while abroad can find themselves in serious trouble. These activities naturally bring travelers in close contact with criminal elements, increasing the potential for threats. Moreover, if the traveler is caught and arrested, he or she becomes open not only to criminal prosecution but also to extortion by corrupt elements of the local police. Local law enforcement officials in many countries literally have the power of life and death over people who break the law in their jurisdictions. They can be just as likely as a criminal element to beat, rob or even kill someone in their custody. Business people can even be blackmailed by intelligence services into giving up company trade secrets or committing treason against their country.

Ignorance of the law is never a defense, nor is the idea that "everyone else is doing it." It is the traveler's responsibility to know the law and culture of a travel destination. Illegal activity is no less illegal simply because others are observed engaging in it.

Westerners must understand that if they are arrested, the police may not care where they are from. No traveler, regardless their country of origin, has the right to be belligerent or break the law. Nationality will not save someone from the consequences of their actions. In fact, depending on the crime and other factors outside the traveler's control — such as politics and international tensions — nationality can prove a liability. A traveler's embassy can make sure an arrested citizen is not subjected to human rights violations or abuse, but it will not be able to save a person who has broken the law.

When abroad, it is common for travelers to want to take part in local entertainment. Such activities can lower the traveler's guard, especially if alcohol is involved. Add to this a prevalent feeling among travelers that they are allowed to behave in ways normally unacceptable in their home countries, and it can be a volatile mix. While some tourist locations allow some leniency regarding public drunkenness or disorderly conduct, it is a mistake for travelers to think they can act without consequences.

Bars and casinos, especially those that facilitate prostitution or drug trafficking, can present several threats. Travelers could find themselves in the middle of an illegal transaction or armed confrontation between gangs. Furthermore, a traveler who is convinced to engage in a sexual liaison may find that their companion has accomplices lying in wait to commit a robbery — or worse.

Street vendors or other locals may also be looking to make a victim out of an unwitting visitor by offering to escort the foreigner someplace to look at merchandise or to meet local artisans. These scenarios sometimes end in a bad part of town where accomplices are waiting to commit robbery or cause bodily harm.

Children are known to be expert pickpockets in many countries. They often surround a traveling Westerner, seemingly to talk or ask questions, but in reality to remove his or her possessions. Adult criminals will also use children as a diversion.

Criminal elements also will take advantage of a visitor's lack of familiarity with local geography and customs. Travelers who walk around a foreign city with the idea of taking in the local color risk wandering into a dangerous neighborhood. Every city has areas that are dangerous for local inhabitants, let alone conspicuous strangers. This risk can be compounded when the wandering occurs at night, even when travelers are in a small group.

To keep a low profile, visitors should dress modestly, especially in a conservative or religious country. They should also know local customs before dressing in native clothing; certain colors and patterns have special, subtle meanings in native cultures. Missing these meanings could be offensive to these cultures — and dangerous for the traveler. Also, wearing a jersey or other clothing representing the wrong sports team, such as a soccer club, in the wrong location can lead to violence.

The desire to videotape or photograph travel memories also can lead to problems for travelers who are unaware of local laws and customs. In many countries, it is forbidden to photograph military installations or government buildings. Security forces also can take offense when being photographed, and in some parts of the world may respond by confiscating film, breaking cameras or worse. In many countries, photographing civilians, especially children, can be considered offensive behavior. This is especially true for locals taking part in religious rituals. They may react negatively, perhaps even aggressively, to even being asked to be photographed by an outsider.

To avoid trouble abroad, travelers should use common sense and always maintain a high state of situational awareness. The same general rules apply to any city around the world: avoid hustlers, muggers, gangsters, pimps, grifters and pushers.

When preparing for a trip abroad, travelers should consult consular information on the destination country. This document, as well as any recent warden messages from their home countries' embassies, will contain information on potential threats and recent trends in local criminal activity. For further information about generally safe places to visit (as well as those to avoid), the concierge in most quality hotels can be a reliable, knowledgeable guide. In some cities with critical crime or terrorist threats, it might even be advisable not to leave the hotel or resort property at all during leisure times, especially after dark. By staying in the hotel or resort and taking advantage of the services in the resident bar or restaurant, the visitor minimizes contact with potential criminal elements. Furthermore, by charging meals and drinks to the room, travelers avoid having to carry a large amount of cash.

Westerners who want to avoid danger while traveling abroad will arrive in their host country with a basic knowledge of local threats, laws and customs. Furthermore, they will avoid danger zones and maintain situational awareness — and exercise common sense — at all times.

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