It can happen to the best of us: you are on vacation and want to relax, when an unexpected physical security issue arises. I had just arrived at the beach villa, put my belongings in my room and stepped out on the patio to take in the view. As I re-entered the room to finish collecting my bags from the valet, I saw that my camera had been stolen. The theft reminded me that even a few minutes of being mentally “checked out” can have consequences. However, with the right planning and preparation, you can manage and mitigate physical security concerns.
It is important to think about physical security as soon as you begin planning your trip. Consider the physical security risks at each stage, including travel, transportation, lodging, dining reservations, sight-seeing, and excursions.
- Before traveling, review the country’s Travel Advisory as published by the US Department of State. Travel Advisories alert travelers to any recent information about the risks of crime, terrorism, natural disasters, and other issues.
- US travelers should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides security updates to travelers and registers their information with the local embassy or consulate in case of an emergency.
- Additionally, program local emergency numbers and your country’s embassy or consulate phone number and address into your phone.
- Travelers should also keep their family and traveling companions informed of their itinerary.
The following categories are the main areas of risk for physical security while traveling overseas.
Part 1: Crime, Civil Unrest and Crowds, and Terrorism
Both violent crime and property crime present physical security concerns for international travelers. Additionally, recent events in Seoul, South Korea and Istanbul, Turkey underscore how festive, bustling tourist areas can quickly turn deadly with little to no warning. It’s a stark reminder that even during holiday travel, you still need to be prepared and pay attention.
The risk of crime is varied, even within a location, and factors such as the reliability and professionalism of the local police force can impact a traveler’s safety and security. A review of the destination’s criminal environment is key to understanding what risks are present and which risks may be unique to you. For example, a popular tourist resort area may have low levels of petty crime, but a higher level of express kidnappings, especially targeting wealthy tourists.
- Before traveling, review the Travel Advisories by the US Department of State.
- Familiarize yourself with the security available at your destination. Are there off-duty officers, private security, no security? Is the local police force professional and reliable?
- Practice common sense and smart travel practices. Keep a low profile, and avoid flashy jewelry, designer handbags, expensive watches, and the latest expensive electronic devices.
- Don’t leave bags unattended. Avoid placing passports, cash, cell phones, and other valuables in the outer pockets of backpacks, coats, and purses, or on tables and bars in public places.
- The risk of sexual assault can be high at hotels and resorts, especially for female travelers. Travelers should not assume that resort employees, or other guests, are vetted.
- Avoid bringing unknown persons to your room, as this presents a risk of being drugged, robbed, and/or assaulted.
- Do not discuss travel plans or room numbers around strangers, including resort or hotel staff.
- Be aware that security and safety concerns may vary for different areas at a location. For example, the resort property may be relatively safe, but an increase in the activity of drug-trafficking organizations in the area may increase the risk of random violence on the beaches, at night, or outside a resort’s property.
Civil Unrest and Crowds
Civil unrest can draw large crowds and turn violent at a moment’s notice. Additionally, during the holidays, crowds gather at large events to celebrate or watch fireworks, which can present a personal security risk. The Halloween celebration in Seoul in October 2022, during which 158 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured, is a tragic reminder that any crowd can quickly become too large and out of control.
- Maintain awareness of crowd size at events. Security experts recommend that if you can’t stand with your hands on your hips, then the crowd is too dense, and to leave immediately.
- Even in smaller crowds, always look for openings and gaps to quickly exit the crowd.
- Political events—locally or abroad—may spark protests, which can quickly escalate. Monitor your destination’s news sources a few weeks before traveling and note any elections, planned protests, or other key events.
- If you see any protests forming—no matter how small—move away and out of the area.
- Be flexible with sight-seeing or other non-essential travel plans if there are protests.
- Monitor local news for updates on any road closures, road blocks, or delays in transportation services.
The risk of terrorism in most places is a high-impact, low-probability scenario. The November 2022 bombing on Istiklal Street in Istanbul—a busy shopping and tourist location—highlights the importance of being aware of the local security situation. In recent years the risk of terrorism has not been widely covered in US news, but that doesn’t mean the risk of terrorism has decreased in some countries.
- Be aware of terrorism warnings or reported activity from trusted sources, such as the US Department of State’s Travel Advisories or security alerts from in-country embassies.
- Be aware that popular tourist areas are often a target-rich environment for terrorists.
- Take note of any unattended bags, purses, or backpacks and move away from the area and alert local authorities.
Part 2: Natural Disasters, Environmental Risks, Health Crises, Transportation, and Behavior Risks
Health and safety issues also present many physical security concerns for international travelers. Natural disasters and health crises can strike unexpectedly, so prior planning for how you will respond is key. Conducting research on transportation options as well as local laws and social norms will also help to mitigate the physical security concerns related to those issues.
Natural Disasters and Environmental Risks
Natural disasters and resulting collapses or failures in infrastructure (such as power) can also present physical security risks. Weather is an obvious risk, but sometimes international travelers forget to take into account localized weather patterns. Severe weather can also strain the local power infrastructure.
- Stay alert to changing weather both locally and in the countries or cities along your travel route.
- Prepare a contingency plan if bad weather delays travel or causes power outages at your destination. Does your destination have a generator? Do you have enough fresh water and food for a few days?
A health crisis can occur while on vacation due to a medical emergency, an accident, or a localized event, such as an outbreak of Hepatitis A due to contaminated food or water.
- Review health insurance coverage for overseas travel and determine whether medevac is included if necessary.
- Prior to departure, note the contact information (address, phone number) for the closest hospital that has Joint Commission International accreditation.
- Review the number of available hospitals in the area. What if there is a mass casualty event or other disaster—are there enough hospitals to handle the load without becoming overwhelmed? Find alternative locations or medevac options if feasible.
- Review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations or other health guidelines for traveling overseas. In addition to vaccine requirements for some countries, the CDC will include recent outbreaks or health risks.
- Prepare for the possibility of an outbreak, which may be localized. If the country you’re visiting temporarily grounds international flights, what would you do and what steps would you need to take to ensure that you had a place to stay and alternative arrangements to leave?
- Travelers should check with the management at their accommodations to see if there are carbon monoxide detectors in the room and if not, request that one be provided. There have been recent press reporting of travelers becoming sick and even dying due to carbon monoxide poisoning. These incidents have occurred at a variety of facilities, including high-end resorts and rentals.
- Travelers should also inquire about any recent pesticide application in or near bedrooms.
Consider the physical security concerns associated with each mode of transportation that you plan to utilize as well as every location at which you plan to stop while traveling to and from the destination. Each leg of the journey—from home to the airport, to the terminal, to the plane, to ground transportation, to lodging—creates opportunities for criminals. Review each segment of your travel—including any sight-seeing trips or excursions—for physical security risks.
- Review the option and potential security benefits of using a smaller, private airport versus a large airport during the peak holiday season.
- Try to reduce layovers and changes in planes.
- Secure ground transportation prior to arrival. Vetted private drivers and vehicles are preferred. Resort or hotel services are reliable depending on the facility and location. Avoid using taxis or other public transportation if possible.
- Use vetted transportation services for sight-seeing or excursions. In some countries, even if the overall security risk is low, it may be useful to find services that provide armored vehicles if traveling in more remote or rural areas outside the main population centers or if there is a medium risk of express kidnapping.
Security officers have noted that it is a common issue for international travelers to run afoul of local customs, norms, or laws. Awareness of these laws and norms is key.
- Review the Department of State’s Travel Advisories, which include local norms or laws that are frequently violated by foreign travelers.
- Remember that just because it is legal in your state or country does not mean that it is legal elsewhere. Be smart and don’t travel with CBD products or THC-infused gummies, snacks, or supplements.
- Take note of local ordinances on alcohol consumption and limits.
- Imbibe smartly. An intoxicated traveler is an easy target for criminal elements.
- Be aware of local political sensitivities. In some countries it can be a crime to criticize the government. Don’t discuss politics with strangers or in public places. Don’t wear clothing or hats with political slogans or names.
We hope this is helpful as you plan for upcoming international travel. Red Five can help with security planning and risk assessments for any international travel this holiday season.