Tourists who researched security conditions in Sri Lanka before the Easter Sunday terror attacks would have found that travel advisories ranked the threat of terrorism as low.
The church and hotel bombings on the island shattered that outlook, underscoring how attacks increasingly occur in presumably safe locations, and raising questions about the value of due diligence with so much uncertainty in the world.
But travel and risk mitigation experts insist that, while we can’t predict the next crisis, preparing for the worst and taking charge of our own personal security are essential.
“Most of us are not going to end up in a terrorist attack,” said Chris Abbott, executive director of Open Briefing, a company that provides security and intelligence services to nongovernmental organizations. “Know the high-risk areas and where the threats are and know what you’re going to do when it goes down.”
Research before you go
Official government sites contain troves of analyses on most countries and the potential threats facing visitors, as well as advice on everything a traveler might need, from vaccines to insurance to crisis planning.
“There’s a lot of good information in those government sites if people haven’t considering looking at them,” said Evan Godt, the destinations managing editor of guidebook giant, Lonely Planet.
The travel advisories weigh factors like crime, terrorism and civil unrest and typically range from “exercise normal precautions” to “do not travel.” It’s wise to review multiple government sites, including the United Kingdom Foreign Office, the Australian Foreign Affairs department and the United States Department of State.
Register your trip in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts on security changes and so officials can reach you in an emergency. The department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council also releases in-depth crime and safety reports on countries and major cities.
Ciara Johnson, a 26-year-old solo traveler who has visited some 40 countries and shares safety tips on social media, gets her global view of travel advisories from the State Department’s color-coded world map. She also sometimes looks at International SOS’s travelriskmap.com, which ranks countries by health care and security risk.
She reads firsthand accounts from other female travelers on sites like Solo Traveler and Solo Female Traveler Network. She also reads up on her destinations in Lonely Planet, buys insurance from its recommended provider, World Nomads, and checks out that site’s articles on safety.
Terrorism is not so much on her mind as personal safety, Ms. Johnson said, life carries risks whether staying at home or traveling the world.
“But I think you can take steps to prevent bad things from happening and prepare yourself as much as possible,” she said.
Do it yourself or book a tour?
Many travelers leave the front-end work to tour operators. Grasshopper Adventures, which runs most of its cycling tours in Southeast Asia, consults a variety of sources about its destinations, including government sites, cycling touring forums, and traffic and accident statistics, said its chief executive, Adam Platt-Hepworth.
When suicide bombers struck in Sri Lanka, the company had two tours underway and they both finished without incident. In the coming weeks, several more of the 9-day rides were still a go.
“We thought everyone would cancel,” Mr. Platt-Hepworth said, “but a surprising number of people said, ‘Yeah, I’m still going. That’s not going to mess up my holiday.’”
When the British government on April 25 advised against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka, TUI Group, one of the world’s biggest tour operators, encouraged its 200 or so customers to leave, said Martin Riecken, head of corporate communications.
Those who bought future trips to the island were offered free rebooking or a full refund, he said. The company always follows the advice of the governments where its divisions are based like Germany, the United Kingdom and France.
“If any foreign office imposes a travel warning, we won’t fly there,” Mr. Riecken said.
Consider the power of your phone
Many corporations and nongovernmental organizations enlist travel security and risk mitigation firms to help protect staff abroad, and some of those services are available to leisure travelers.
International SOS offers medical insurance and travel assistance that includes access to its app, with safety reports on each country, and advice by phone from its analysts. That could include recommending options for secure hotels and for safe transportation after an extreme event. For two people traveling to Egypt for a week, for example, this package costs about $200.
There are a number of mobile apps that track users and send out alerts on changing security conditions. The Sitata app lets you enter trip dates and location and view reports by country on personal safety, extreme violence and political unrest. Sitata, which is free, and Safeture app, to be available to consumers this summer for around $40 a year, send users alerts for selected countries on flight disruptions, demonstrations and disease outbreaks.
Mobile apps Life360 and Apple’s Find My Friends, both free, share your location with people in your group, and send alerts when users arrive at a location. Life360 also lets you send a help alert to your group.
Before and during your trip
Locate your country’s nearest consulate or embassy and keep their addresses and emergency numbers with you. Most important, experts say, is assess your surroundings and have a plan for getting out of harm’s way. That could mean using a bathroom for a panic room. If you’re in an open area or public place when violence occurs, “You go away from it, always,” said Matthew Bradley, regional security director for risk management firms International SOS and Control Risks.
When choosing a hotel, he said, find one with “the same level of security as every other hotel in town, or a little higher.” It’s best not to stay above the fifth floor, so emergency truck ladders can still reach, he said.
Don’t overlook packing a good first aid kit, a door stopper and a mosquito net, and make sure you’ve had the right vaccinations, said Mr. Abbott of Open Briefing.
“Honestly, it’s the small stuff,” he said.
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