First published in ITIJ 138, July 2012
Some unlikely candidates have emerged as hotly tipped holiday destinations for 2012. Lee Niblett of Red24 examines potential security developments and threats that may affect these off-the-beaten-track destinations, as well as their more well-travelled counterparts, over the next 12 months
Despite continuing economic pessimism, the global travel market has, on the whole, shown remarkable resilience over the past 12 to 24 months. Individuals and families throughout Europe and North America have been reluctant to cut back on holidays and short-term breaks, and the travel patterns of individuals from these regions are becoming increasingly sophisticated and diverse, with holidaymakers seeking greater adventure, authenticity and variety, as well as better value for money. These factors appear to be fundamental in the elevation of destinations such as Colombia, Iran, Lebanon, Madagascar, Sudan and Tajikistan to various top-10 destination lists around the travel industry in recent months. However, as the recent coup in Mali and unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 demonstrate, holidays to destinations off the beaten track are not without their risks and can pose significant safety, security and travel issues.
Colombia’s elevation into the top-10 lists of desirable holiday destinations is of little surprise. A fascinating country, it possesses a vibrant culture and some of the most beautiful scenery and architecture in South America. In addition, the country’s security environment has improved markedly in recent years. Once synonymous with kidnapping, drug trafficking and terrorism, Colombia has made massive strides in combating its guerrilla groups and drug-trafficking gangs. However, despite these gains, crime levels in the country’s cities are on the increase and kidnapping incidents have risen. Although the left-wing militant Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has suffered numerous setbacks in recent years – including the death of its leader in 2011 – a hardcore cadre of guerrillas perseveres and FARC has returned to a rurally based campaign involving ambushes and bombings. In addition, increasing interaction between criminal gangs and demobilised right-wing paramilitary groups is now an emerging threat throughout the country. These groups are heavily armed, highly motivated and criminally sophisticated, and they have a wide range of illegal interests, from narcotics production, smuggling and distribution through to kidnapping and extortion. In some areas, they are now challenging the authority of the state and are directly responsible for the deterioration in security conditions in both urban and rural areas. Though holiday travellers are unlikely to be directly targeted by such groups, they do pose an indirect threat and are responsible for a wider proliferation of criminal incidents that might affect the holiday traveller.
Lebanon and Iran
Lebanon has long been a favoured destination for the adventurous traveller. The country offers a unique mix of activities and attractions, including mountain skiing, wonderful beaches, picturesque valleys, vibrant nightlife, excellent restaurants and a rich culture and history. However, the country has long suffered political instability and the conflict in Syria has the potential to inflame the Lebanon’s simmering political and religious tensions. So far, much of the spillover violence from Syria has been confined to the immediate border area but there are signs that the situation may well deteriorate throughout 2012. President Bashar al-Assad’s offensive against the opposition in Syria is serving to polarise public opinion in Lebanon and protest activity is on the increase, with large scale pro- and anti-Assad rallies being held both in the capital Beirut and in Tripoli in northern Lebanon throughout April. The influx of Syrian refugees into the country is also exacerbating the situation. Given the seeming inevitability of a protracted and bloody civil conflict in Syria itself, the Lebanese security environment looks likely to remain volatile for the foreseeable future.
Holidays to destinations off the beaten track are not without their risks”
Iran has also entered some top-10 lists as a desirable adventure destination. The country, like Lebanon, offers a wide variety of things to do and see, as well as an abundance of historical and cultural delights, but its current nuclear stance has put it on a potential collision course with the West. Although few in Europe or North America have the appetite for a military confrontation with the ayatollahs and President Ahmadinejad, Israel continues to talk quietly of military action and although deemed unlikely, a unilateral Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out. Any such action would have obvious ramifications for foreign nationals in Iran itself and in the wider Middle Eastern region – anti-Western sentiment would flare and attacks on Western interests and nationals would be a credible concern. Iranian retaliation would likely consist of conventional military strikes against Israeli cities and/or rocket attacks into Israeli territory by Hezbollah and Hamas, both Iranian proxies. These acts, which would have significant travel as well as security ramifications, could provoke further Israeli military action that could then prompt a much wider military conflict and a further deterioration of security conditions across much of the region.
Madagascar is very much a dream destination for natural history buffs. The world’s fourth largest island possesses jaw-dropping scenery and amazingly diverse flora and fauna. However, it also possesses an unstable political environment that has the potential to deteriorate into unrest and violence. Successive elections since 2002 have been disputed by various participants and there have been both attempted and successful coups and civilian-led protests in recent years that have forced incumbents from office. The situation in 2012 remains tense. There are divisions within the country’s military, and opposition groups continue to demonstrate against Andry Rajoelina, a former mayor of Antananarivo and now president of the country’s so-called High Transitional Authority. The status of currently exiled former president Marc Ravalomanana remains contentious and despite all of the country’s political parties agreeing in September 2011 on a South African Development Community-led roadmap for elections, instability looks likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
Sudan may well offer visitors an unspoilt and unique holiday opportunity, and with more pyramids than Egypt, it certainly provides the tourist with an unparalleled historical adventure. However, although many of the local population will provide a warm welcome, the country is far from stable. South Sudan’s secession from the north in 2011 may have brought an end to more than two decades of civil war in Sudan but tensions persist. The South’s secession cost oil-dependent Sudan some 75 per cent of its oil reserves, compounding the country’s already dire economic situation. Inflation reached almost 20 per cent in 2011 and the government’s increasing debt level is likely to result in budget cuts. Such a move could provoke unrest and rebellion in the country’s peripheral states and poorer urban areas, which are dependent on central government handouts.
Although deemed unlikely, a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iran cannot be ruled out.”
The situation in South Sudan, also tipped by some as an emerging destination for the adventurous traveller, is little better. Despite its newly acquired natural resource wealth, it is the world’s youngest and poorest nation. Inflation last year ran at almost 80 per cent and about one third of the population will require international food aid in 2012. Corruption is rampant and is significantly impacting the country’s infrastructural development and economic growth. Former rebel commanders, competing tribal groups and entrenched factionalism within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) contribute to an unstable political and security environment; widespread violence claimed at least 3,000 lives last year. Furthermore, conflict between Sudan and South Sudan remains a credible concern. Despite last year’s secession, relations between the two states are fraught and a number of political and security matters remain unresolved. Given the presence of a number of potential flashpoints, a new Sudanese war cannot be ruled out.
Tajikistan offers much for the intrepid traveller, particularly if they are keen hikers or mountaineers. Nonetheless, this former Soviet Republic, nestled in the southeastern part of Central Asia, also offers much in the way of security concerns. It is a country in which a political system has been extensively compromised by endemic corruption, where public service provision is almost non-existent, where much infrastructure is near collapse and where deteriorating economic conditions may prompt increasing unrest despite a repressive security apparatus. There is also a growing threat from Islamist militancy. A fragile economic situation, high levels of unemployment, political disaffection and increasing repression of Islamist movements has fuelled membership of extremist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir across the Central Asian region in recent years. Tajikistan, like others in the region, has been aided in the fight against terrorism by the international community, but it remains largely ill-equipped to counter the rising Islamist threat. As such, sporadic attacks are a concern in 2012 and although government facilities and security forces will remain the primary targets, Islamist groups will pose both direct and indirect threats to foreign nationals. Travellers to Tajikistan should also be aware that relations between Tajikistan and its neighbours Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan remain strained and border clashes, which have occurred regularly in the past, are likely in the future; such confrontations carry the potential for escalation and conflict. It also goes without saying that the country’s border with Afghanistan is high-risk. As with all border regions in the country, the Afghan-Tajik border is home to unmarked minefields, bandits, drug traffickers and also carries an elevated Islamist militant threat.
Even established holiday destinations pose significant risks in 2012. In the Maldives, for example, continuing political instability following the ousting of the country’s first democratically elected leader in early February 2012 threatens to trigger violent unrest. Thus far, protests and violence have not impacted the archipelago nation’s luxury resorts, but the potential exists for demonstrations to impact the island of Hulule, which is home to the country’s primary airport, potentially compromising travel in and out of one of the Indian Ocean’s holiday jewels.
Unrest also threatens holidaymakers in Greece. Growing disillusionment with the political elite, rising unemployment (particularly among the young) and a retreating social welfare system will likely fuel further protests and unrest in Greece throughout 2012. Much of this protest action will focus on Athens and the country’s other urban centres but, given the emergence of new protest tactics (such as those demonstrated by the Occupy movement) and the likely accompanying rise in industrial action, austerity measure-related unrest in Greece certainly carries the potential to have a much broader impact, affecting even those visiting only rural areas and resorts.
Thailand remains a continuing cause for concern. Fundamental political divisions remain among the political elite and the status of controversial figure Thaksin Sinawatra, the new prime minister’s brother, will be critical in ascertaining Thailand’s future political trajectory. Efforts by the new government to offer Thaksin an amnesty or to enact constitutional changes to overturn his past convictions could exacerbate existing political divides and provoke politically-motivated unrest in Bangkok similar to that witnessed in 2009 and 2010. The Thai military also remains a threat to the government and the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is critical to the Thai political environment. Widely revered, the King is a stabilising influence on the Thai political arena and on the Thai military.
political system has been extensively compromised by endemic corruption.”
The situation in Egypt is also far from settled. Demonstrations and unrest persist in Cairo as the democratic transition moves forward. Furthermore, although the country’s popular Red Sea resorts largely escaped the violence and instability witnessed during Mubarak’s removal in 2011, the area’s security conditions have subsequently deteriorated. The absence of effective government control and continuing political tensions have fuelled an increase in criminal activity, including banditry, and land disputes with the local Bedouin have resulted in numerous kidnappings of foreign tourists and even the occupation and extortion of a luxury resort complex near Taba. Given continuing instability, further incidents appear inevitable.
Minimise the risks
These security threats and potential developments do not mean that travel to these destinations cannot be undertaken, far from it. Many of the aforementioned forecasts are very much the worst-case scenarios and many may not come to pass. Furthermore, even if they do, their exact trajectory may not be as dangerous and disruptive as first feared. Nevertheless, past events have taught us that such events may be low probability but are high impact. Political instability, terrorism, violent crime, kidnapping and natural disasters are rare events but their impact can be huge. Travellers, travel providers and insurers need to be aware of the risks. Armed with this knowledge, steps can be taken and plans can be made. Individuals can minimise the threat by monitoring developments or avoiding travel to certain areas or at certain times. Travel companies, working in conjunction with insurers, can ensure that adequate measures and contingency plans are in place should the unexpected occur.