Whether they are in Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Cancun or Barbados, tourists can find themselves exposed to the risks of violent organised crime, drug trafficking issues and police corruption. But these areas have beautiful landscapes and are cheap to visit, and so remain attractive destinations for many. Looking at the reality of the dangers for tourists staying at resorts in popular destinations such as these, Alexander Hasenstab, Regional Security Manager for International SOS, said that countries that are socioeconomically disadvantaged, or where political instability is rife, can be particularly dangerous and when crises do happen, they can prove challenging for different stakeholders to navigate: “In recent years, we have witnessed security decline in numerous locations across the globe,” he told ITIJ. “Particularly in these unstable environments, the risk of falling victim to criminality appears to be higher than in the more developed and stable environments. Violent behaviour, volatility and insecurity often present difficult and tough challenges to manage not only for the authorities (e.g. governments, law enforcement agencies), but also for the tourism industry and individual travel and tourism providers.”
Alex Thompson is CEO and Founder of Legaroo, which provides legal assistance to travellers. He has also witnessed certain tourist-dependent counties suffering from economic and political turmoil that mean the destination represents a higher risk for visitors, and pointed out that this trend has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. He also said that situations can be worsened by a lack of legal assistance frameworks. He told ITIJ that some international insurance and assistance plans don’t provide effective and efficient legal assistance. “Nor will the Embassy or Consulate,” he stated. “They usually limit their help to providing a list of lawyers at the traveller’s own expense. In the majority of cases, the traveller is alone and confused in relation to these services. Moreover, the law profession can be quite predatory at times of urgency.” Access to legal assistance as part of their insurance benefits should be an important consideration for travellers.
ITIJ also spoke with Luke Westgarth-Taylor, Senior Consultant – Crisis & Risk, Healix International, who pointed out that all major cities have their share of risks, particularly those that may be attractive to tourists for an abundance of other reasons. “Some of the most desired tourist locations have the highest statistics of petty and violent crime,” he confirmed.
There’s little doubt that secure resorts, which often have their own security guards, provide a safer environment. However, the nature of tourists means that they want to explore and discover the country they are visiting
Lloyd Figgins, CEO of the TRIP Group and author of The Travel Survival Guide states in his book that overseas travel can be ‘fraught with danger’ and he is acutely aware of the importance of risk management. He told ITIJ that although events in which tourists are killed are extremely rare, they do happen. “Recent events in Mexico, in which two tourists were killed in Tulum and a separate incident where two drug gang members were shot dead on a beach in Cancun, raise concerns over the safety of tourists in resorts,” he said “Following the killings in Tulum, the German foreign office issued a travel advisory about the incident, telling its citizens ‘if you are currently in the Tulum or Playa del Carmen area, do not leave your secured hotel facilities’. There’s little doubt that secure resorts, which often have their own security guards, provide a safer environment. However, the nature of tourists means that they want to explore and discover the country they are visiting.” ITIJ also spoke with James Lawrence, Co-Founder & Director, Peregrine Risk Management, who agreed that the risk to tourists is real, and can intensify at night. “The risk to tourists is extremely credible. Tourists notoriously drop their guard and relax probably too much,” he stated. “At night, the darkness provides an excellent landscape for criminality; the roads and alleyways can be dark and uninviting and one wrong turn can be detrimental.”
Encountering criminality is common in holiday destinations
In terms of the experiences they’ve encountered regarding tourists falling victim to crime in popular destinations, Hasenstab said that although security threats such as civil unrest, corruption and terrorism have the potential to impact tourists, the most prevalent threat is criminality: “While many less severe incidents often go unnoticed by the industry as well as the public, major events affecting travellers and tourists are regularly widely reported on in the media,” he told ITIJ. “Examples include the 2002 bombing incident in the tourist district of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali and the 2005 bomb attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, the 2013 violent attack in the popular Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and the 2016 attack on tourists in the beach resort of Grand-bassam Ivory Coast,” he stated. “Incidents of petty crime (e.g., theft, common assault, small-scale corruption) impact travellers and tourists frequently, including in tourist destinations in the Global North.”
Illegal taxis provide the perfect cover for sexual related crimes and drink and drug spiking is on the rise
Hasenstab also highlighted the ever-present danger of road safety incidents, in which Legaroo is also witnessing an increase, along with petty theft. “International travellers are a target as they don’t understand the legal environment they’re in,” Thompson told ITIJ. “Driving in another country is an adventure in itself, and the legal environment is most likely quite different from home. When you add language and culture barriers, it can really escalate from a headache to even a nightmare.”
Figgins said that minor crimes tend to occur more frequently than more serious crimes: “Pickpocketing and bag snatching, for example, are commonplace wherever large crowds gather and this is particularly true of tourist resorts, as criminals view tourists as rich pickings,” he stated. “Serious crimes, involving violence and sexual assault, make the news headlines, but are statistically rare.”
Lawrence has noted an increase in drink spiking, along with other crimes: “Illegal taxis provide the perfect cover for sexual related crimes and drink and drug spiking is on the rise in addition to the more common forms of petty crime,” he told ITIJ.
Providing appropriate assistance to travellers who have been victims of crime
James Wood, Head of Security Solutions for International SOS, said that providing information in different guises is critical: “The first component of providing assistance to tourists is in providing them with up-to-date, relevant and actionable information. This could be on trends of security risks, such as criminality, as well as details on locations (‘hotspots’) and other information around methods used by criminals and times where criminality or other security risks are more likely to occur,” he stated. Next in the delivery-of-information sequence is ensuring tourists are adequately equipped to minimise exposure. “This could be through practical guidance, tips and advice or even training, presented in an easily digestible way. This allows each individual to understand how to manage their own safety without it getting in the way of their enjoyment of the trip,” Wood explained. He also highlighted the importance of communication: “This is another critical component in mitigating risks. Having the means to contact someone in the event of an incident can make all the difference in being able to access assistance.”
Figgins underlined exactly why travel insurance is of the utmost importance: “Most tourists don’t have the luxury of having a specialist assistance provider they can call in case of an emergency. Therefore, their first port of call is often their resort rep, or a direct call to their insurance company. While reps do a great job, they are not specialists in security or healthcare. There have been many reports of tourists being given inaccurate advice from their tour operator, particularly when it comes to medical provision.”
Tracking trends of criminal activity
When it comes to patterns and trends related to the types of crimes being committed and the assistance required, certain crimes are on the rise and have worsened due to the Covid-19 pandemic, said Wood: “The pandemic has exacerbated already fragile security risk environments, particularly in higher-risk locations, so the very real threat of security issues occurring remains something of which travellers need to be considerate.”
Thompson said that ongoing types of unrest are having a growing impact on many types of crime: “Political and economic unrest is causing a surge in petty theft, scams, and sexual related assaults,” he warned.
Figgins highlighted another growing challenge that is seemingly symptomatic of 21st Century technological advances: “The use of social media to commit crime had been on the increase prior to Covid-19 and will likely continue as travel recovers,” he said. He also explained that the pandemic is increasing tourist vulnerability to scams. “As travel resumes, we are already seeing scams in resorts where tourists are being told they need to pay for a Covid test prior to travelling to the airport for their journey home, only to find out it’s not required, by which time they have already parted with their money and have little opportunity to complain, or get a refund,” he told ITIJ.
Lawrence, too, is witnessing a worsening of some crimes due to the pandemic, but believes it’s too soon to know their true impact: “With increased economic pressure, a significant rise in unemployment, distaste against Covid protocols and social restrictions, we are likely see increased risks such as a rise in crime rates, increased social and political unrest, lack of investment in infrastructure, perceived wealth and increased rates of kidnap, to name just a few.”
As travel reopens, tourists need to be made aware of the dangers
It is known that in socioeconomically disadvantaged and politically unstable environments crime rates tend to be higher, and tourists are therefore more likely to be affected and, furthermore, in many cases, previously recognised risks have been heightened by Covid-19. Criminality poses one of the biggest threats to travellers’ safety and the pandemic has also provided new opportunities for scams. Although resorts tend to provide a safer environment, travellers are unlikely to want to be confined to their resort, instead wishing to explore the destination in question. Risks will always be present and assistance providers have a responsibility to equip travellers with the tools they need to mitigate that risk and navigate potentially dangerous situations in the best way possible, including the provision of effective information, appropriate support and open communication channels. Additional protective tools provided by the travel industry are comprehensive travel insurance that covers unforeseen instances and appropriate legal support. Looking ahead, it may be too soon to know the full impact of the pandemic on travel security, but with assistance providers and travel and security experts working to provide the necessary support to travellers, beautiful destinations can be accessed and enjoyed.