Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a series in which Stratfor discusses the many facets of travel security. Click here for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.
Strikes over austerity measures in Greece effectively shut down the country the week of June 24, bringing public service to a standstill. Indeed, all public transportation but the metro was brought to halt. Government offices and banks were closed. Air traffic controllers worked only four hours each in the morning and evening, and some major transit ports were closed. Naturally, this situation affected, among other things, international travel to and from the country as well as travel within the country.
With the traditional summer travel season upon the northern hemisphere, the disruptions in Greece are a reminder of the importance of travel security. All travel should begin with an understanding of the risk environment of the intended destination, and contingency plans should be prepared in the event that environment proves too dangerous to stay. We will thus begin our series addressing these issues.
Before You Travel
International travel presents certain risks for anyone, especially in areas of the world where the government has limited control over its citizenry and where law and order are not as formally established as they are many parts of the developed world. However, travelers are not immune to risk even in developed countries, as the situation in Greece and the March 11 earthquake in Japan demonstrated. When possible, knowing in advance the cultural and societal differences — not to mention bureaucratic practices that may seem alien to a traveler — as well as the security environment of a destination country provides any traveler the best chance of avoiding risk. With this in mind, appropriate precautions can and should be taken.
Government websites are an excellent place to begin. The U.S., Canadian, British and Australian websites all list travel warnings issued for countries in which potentially dangerous conditions have been identified. They also provide the current Consular Information Sheets of every foreign country, which contain information on visa requirements, health risks, crime, and atypical currency or entry requirements. They also list any areas of instability and provide contact information for their embassies and consulates. Moreover, the sites provide a link to a page where travelers can register their personal information at no cost, making it easier for the government to help during an emergency situation. The websites listed above are also useful for non-citizens, as is the information to a traveler regardless of nationality. Notably, for liability reasons, government websites tend to report the worst possible scenario. In other cases, some are outdated and lack specificity with regard to security issues, especially in countries experiencing protests or in smaller countries with a less-pronounced consular presence. Travelers should keep this in mind when researching their destination country.
Travelers should supplement information found on government websites with other sources. Private security consulting firms can provide more customized information tailored to a specific location or client. For those who cannot afford those services, fellow travelers can be great sources of information. Travel blogs and Internet forums can be reliable for "on the ground" intelligence, especially if a traveler has questions about certain locations, transportation or security.
There is an inherent unpredictability in international travel; even the most seasoned of travelers cannot foresee every threat. Knowing as much as possible about the destination country is the best way for travelers to prepare for any situation they may encounter after they embark on their journey.
Mitigate the Risks
Of course, it is impossible to know everything about a location or plan for every possibility, but exercising proper situational awareness is essential for any traveler. Situational awareness necessarily calls for a relaxed state of awareness; constant stress and worry will only make a traveler less capable of handling any problems or risks he or she encounters.
The most common problem a traveler may encounter is street crime — though it is by no means the only threat in many areas of the world. There are a couple of cardinal rules for travelers to keep in mind if and when they encounter street crime. First, no object or amount of money is worth your life. Most people injured or killed in such robberies resisted their attackers. In addition, travelers should never take anything on their trip they are not prepared to part with, including items of high financial or sentimental value. Thus, a business traveler should always leave backup discs at home and bring along only that which is absolutely necessary for the specific trip to minimize the loss of proprietary information.
In addition, travelers should keep a low profile. It is advisable to dress down while in public and carry less valuable luggage. A cheap watch and a scruffy pair of shoes could be the difference in drawing unwarranted attention to a traveler. Travelers should never carry large sums of money, and larger bills should be broken into smaller bills. Travelers should also use the smallest bill possible when making a purchase. Cash and credit cards should not all be carried in one wallet or pocket but placed in various locations. And it is important to remember that criminals are often satisfied with cash. When possible, identification and other important documents should be kept separate from money, and credit cards separate from cash, so that they do not have to be replaced.
That said, it is important to make copies of passports and other important documents, leaving the originals in a safe location, such as a hotel deposit box at the front desk of a hotel — room safes are not secure. It also is a good idea to keep a copy of the front page of a passport with the relevant identification information along with a list of credit card numbers and contact information for the card companies at home with relatives in case of an emergency.
Relatives, coworkers or friends should be provided a full itinerary before the traveler leaves home — as well as during the trip — so they can provide at least the basic information to the home office or to the appropriate government agency in case of an emergency. In locations where Internet is readily available, it is a good idea to make daily contact with those at home to provide added accountability for your present and future locations. Buying travelers' insurance also is a good idea.
Some countries will react negatively or deny entry if a traveler's passport contains a stamp from other countries. For that reason, many travelers maintain multiple passports, or request that the visa stamp for a particular country be placed on a separate sheet of paper, in order to keep offending stamps separate. Notably, visa and passport information is primarily used by host governments for the purpose of collecting intelligence. There is little the law-abiding traveler can do to prevent revealing such information to a foreign government, absent traveling with a fake passport, which is never advisable.
Preparations such as these can contribute to a traveler's overall safety during a trip abroad. Arriving at a destination introduces a number of other issues, but being prepared and taking precautionary measures are the first steps a traveler should take to ensure a safe and secure experience.