I was recently visiting with family and friends when the conversation turned to international weddings and other “destination” events, like family reunions. We were all in agreement that the right theme, exotic locale and vacation atmosphere could contribute to a memorable occasion, despite the difficulties in planning a long-distance event. However, that led to a raucous discussion of all the things that can go wrong, and some (mostly) hilarious stories of how we survived different adventures.
It struck me at the time that all of us – everyone an experienced international traveler – had so many seemingly unforeseeable events overtake us. Although the unexpected is one of the real pleasures of international travel, there are times when things can go seriously wrong.
I thought about the care we take in planning for the safety of our clients on their travels. I realized there are some key elements I could share that apply, whether you have a protective detail and travel with “fixers” or not. I’ll start with the most serious or dangerous examples and work through to the more common issues.
Terrorism is probably the greatest concern on everyone’s mind. It also tends to be highly dependent on where you are traveling. A trip to Egypt to see the Valley of Kings is on many of our bucket lists – but it carries a higher terrorism risk than a trip to the Galapagos Islands! As one example, in 2015, the attack on the popular, well-reputed beach resort Port El Kantaoui in neighboring Tunisia, killed 38 people, largely due to inadequate security. More recently, the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf attempted to kidnap tourists in the Philippines.
You can’t completely eliminate the terrorist threat, but you can mitigate it by staying in places where security is a prominent feature of the hotel’s literature, and where ongoing terrorist activity is uncommon. These resorts tend to be harder targets and, therefore, less likely to be attacked.
Not heading to anywhere quite so exotic as Egypt, the Philippines, Tunisia or other area with well-documented terrorist activity? How about that trip to Mexico? Kidnapping is a serious concern, and it is generally criminally motivated. Most foreign tourists kidnapped in Mexico are victims of ATM holdups, sometimes by the very taxi driver who took them to the ATM. Americans can also be victims of “ransom-type” kidnappings. To minimize the risk of being kidnapped, make sure to stay in areas where the security presence is robust. It will serve you well.
I brought up destination weddings earlier because one of my friends planned a group trip to Honduras. The group had done its research and found a safe resort, knowing better than to take on a “guide” it had just met. Their trip was wonderful, but just barely: the Honduras government went into a meltdown less than a week after their return! The government imposed a nation-wide curfew. There were concerns about a coup. Street violence rocked the country. Roads were blocked and looting was rampant.
What happened? The country had just completed national elections the week prior to Thanksgiving. While most Americans consider elections to be an important but routine event, for much of the world, the process can be turbulent and traumatic. Keeping abreast of current events in any country and region you plan to visit is critical to understanding political risk.
Of course, unique differences in the law can also cause problems. Take prescription drugs, for example. Traditional Sudafed, available without a prescription in the U.S. is illegal in Japan (it contains pseudoephedrine HCL). Adderall is another example. The drug is commonly prescribed in the U.S. for narcolepsy and ADHD, but it’s illegal in many countries (it contains amphetamine and dextroamphetamine). At best, it will be confiscated. At worst … well, it depends on the country. In any event, I’d avoid any outcome that starts with “illegal importation” as a criminal charge.
Surprisingly, the risk isn’t just while you are visiting an area overseas, but also upon return. A friend of mine was once traveling in Europe and unfortunately caught a common cold. He had all of the usual symptoms and went to a corner drugstore to buy some cough syrup, no prescription required. As luck would have it, he ended up being secondary-screened by customs on his return to the U.S. He had a bottle-and-a-half of this cough syrup confiscated because it had codeine as an active ingredient. Although he wasn’t necessarily “in trouble,” the customs agent lectured him about illegally importing controlled substances. As a result, he missed his connection in Atlanta.
General Health Risks
Lastly, one of the most fundamental travel precautions is managing general health risks. Most of us know not to drink the water in certain countries. However, there are hidden risks that many people either don’t know or choose to ignore. Ice cubes in a nice, cold drink? Not only is that ice made of tap water, but it could very well have been produced through an icemaker less sanitary than a faucet. How about a frozen margarita? It’s ice in a blender, right? You get the picture!
The enjoyable aspects of visiting exotic locations far outweigh the inconveniences of the actual traveling, but some of these examples show how proper planning can prevent an inconvenience from becoming a tragic statistic. Before embarking on a trip, take the extra time to look into the details. In return, you’ll be able to savor the pleasant surprises of travel – and not fret about the uncertainties.