Picture it: You have planned a beautiful trip to the South of France. You plan to spend a week on the stunning beaches of the French Riviera, drinking too much wine and bragging endlessly about every moment of it on social media.
And then, something horrific happens. Just a week before you go, there’s a gruesome terrorist attack in Nice. You watch the news in stunned silence, heart breaking for the victims, and then a thought enters the back of your mind.
You will be there next week. Is it too dangerous to go? Should you cancel?
This very scenario actually happened, and it’s happening to many people traveling all over the world for all sorts of reasons, to all sorts of destinations more and more lately. In the age of a rampant increase in terrorism, is tourism still safe?
“Statistically speaking, there is a very low probability of tourists becoming victims of a terrorist attack,” says Salvatore Grasso, a Security Consultant at SICURO Consulting, a company specialized in using complex security analysis to provide businesses, international organizations, and government agencies with proactive strategies to manage corporate security risks.
Phew! So, why do so many advisories contain “do not travel” and “very high risk” alerts every time there’s an attack, or even the warning of a potential risk?
“The problem comes down to the practice of security risk assessment, when we consider the probability of a threat against the consequences of it eventuating. The core issue is that probability is normally based on the frequency of attacks occurring in a given place (which are generally very low). However, because the consequences of terrorism are always high, the risk rating is increased significantly and often disproportionately,” says Grass.
But yet even knowing that, terrorism does have a direct relationship with the tourism highs and lows an area sees. “Among the principal purposes of terrorism is to induce terror. It is designed to draw widespread media attention and cause insecurity and panic — and it is very effective at doing so,” says Grasso. “On January 12, 2016, a suicide attack in Istanbul killed thirteen people; in February 2016 it was reported that Turkey saw a 10 percent drop in tourism compared to the same time in the year prior, and Turkey’s tourism revenue is predicted to fall by approximately €10.7 billion in 2016,” says Grasso.
Another example: “On November 13, 2015, a series of coordinated attacks occurred in Paris; in the week after the attacks flight bookings fell by 27 percent, the occupancy rate in hotels fell by approximately 23 percent, and in the month after, and hotel revenues were down by approximately €270 million compared to the same time in year before,” says Grasso.
And yet another: “In June 2015 gunmen opened fire at holidays makers in Sousse, Tunisia, killing 38 people, 30 of these British. In the days after, 3,500 British tourists left Tunisia, there were over 3,000 holiday cancellations, and reservations fell by 60 percent. The point is, terrorism serves its purpose.”
Indeed. But then what are we all to do? Here's what:
1. Get insurance.
A little-known truth is that many travel insurance policies include terrorism coverage. This means, if a terrorist attack occurs at your destination before your trip, you may be covered to cancel and receive reimbursement of your trip costs. “You must have purchased the travel insurance policy before the attack occurred to be covered to cancel because of it,” explains Rachael Taft, a spokesperson for leading travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth.
Policies do have specific requirements of when you can cancel due a terrorist attack. Taft says typically these include: “The attack has to be declared terrorism by the U.S. Department of State, the attack occurred in or near a city on your itinerary, or the attack occurred close to your departure date (usually within seven to 30 days). Some policies won't cover you to cancel because of a terrorist attack if a previous attack had occurred in the same city within the past 30 to 90 days,” says Taft.
If you want more flexibility on when you can cancel — for example, because you're just afraid to travel, or if a terrorist attack occurs, but it doesn't meet the criteria for cancellation — you can purchase a "Cancel For Any Reason" upgrade on many policies. “To use this benefit, you have to cancel at least two to three days before your trip and you will only receive partial reimbursement of your trip costs. This upgrade is only available for a short time after you first book your trip and it can significantly increase the cost of your policy,” says Taft.
2. Do your research.
For those travelers who already have a trip planned, there are things they can do right now to prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario while abroad. “First, check out the U.S. State Department Travel website for additional information about the destination, as well as tips on what to avoid while abroad,” says Joe Cortez, who writes travel insurance and safety and contributes to various websites as a travel expert. While at the State Department site, it may also help to sign up for STEP — the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — to get constant updates about developing situations about their nation, says Cortez. “STEP can help the U.S. Embassy in a particular country identify travelers, and connect them with resources to help in an emergency.”
3. Understand your passport.
Your passport is a great resource. “Inside your passport, you’ll find several pages that include important travel information and tips. Be sure to fill out the ‘emergency contact’ page, make a copy of your passport, and know the location and contact details of each U.S. Embassy in every city you visit and keep them with you at all times,” says Jeff Klee, a travel expert and CEO of travel site CheapAir.com.
4. Have all your documents in order.
This is a crucial step for international air travel in times of heightened security. Making sure your name matches exactly on airline tickets, your passport, and any other travel documents (such as visas) is vital, says Klee. Plan to allow extra time at all security checkpoints along the way. Email copies of all your documents to yourself as back up.
5. Have all of your logistical ducks in a row.
Most countries require proof of entry and exit, so make sure to have paper copies of your details when you are clearing immigration/customs. “You’ll also want to make sure you have addresses and phone numbers for each place you are staying (hotels, Airbnbs, homestays — the more information the better). Most countries ask for this info, but can be lax about reviewing it in normal times. When there is a perceived security risk these minor points become elements that can hold up a smooth start to your vacation. If you’re traveling with a group, make sure you have the details of the tour operator and the meeting point on hand,” says Klee.
6. Pack properly.
Anything that could raise so much as an eyebrow at security checkpoints should be left at home, says Klee. In times of heightened security, absolutely do not leave your luggage unattended.
7. Allow for more time — and have a backup plan.
You will want to allow for extra security screening time across the board. “Airports will typically have longer processing times when clearing customs, and you may find museums and government buildings at your destination have additional screening or modified open/closure times. You will also want to prepare for possible closures at monuments, sightseeing venues, et cetera. This is much harder to predict, but reminding yourself these are simply safety precautions can help keep your stress in check,” says Klee. Plan on a few different, backup itineraries so as to not impact your sightseeing plans.
8. Be brave and benefit.
What does this mean for you if you decide to “keep calm and carry on” to your destination of choice?
“Well, especially in destinations very popular for tourists in the summer months, you might find the swarms of normal summer crowds pleasantly thinned out!” says Klee.
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