Spring break has arrived, or is about to for schools and universities in the U.S., and that ushers in a lot of international travel. This time of year, school groups, travel groups, church/mission groups and individual adventurers make their plans and final preparations for spring, summer and fall travel. Along with these plans, it is more important than ever for travelers to learn and understand the terrorism threat and personal safety risk threat of the countries they are traveling to, particularly in the popular destinations of Mexico and Europe.
Mexico is a very popular and affordable getaway destination for college and high school groups, but there is widespread instability due to crime and violence associated with drug and human trafficking. Many flock to the popular Mexican resorts, but it is important to know that many areas outside of the resort property can be dangerous, especially after dark, so it is important to remain on the resort during this time of heightened caution.
2017 was one of the worst years on record for drug and gang related homicides in Mexico. In late February, a Birmingham area anesthesiologist, Dr. William O’Byrne of UAB, was assaulted and beaten in Puerto Vallarta and later died. On March 8, the U.S. State Department closed the consular office at the popular tourist destination of Playa del Carmen due to a ferry explosion followed by an unidentified explosive device on another ferry near the port. There have been some incidents in the past several years of violence spilling over onto the properties of some popular resort spots including Cancun and Los Cabos and incidents of tourists receiving tainted alcohol on some resorts.
The U.S. State Department has 4 travel advisory levels with 4 being the highest. Mexico is currently rated as 2 meaning “exercise increased caution.” Some states within Mexico are rated as high as 4 which means “do not travel”. Most resort areas fall in the 2 category.
Almost $20 billion per year, 7% of Mexico’s GDP is brought in per year through tourism. The owners and operators of Mexican resorts take security seriously; but, it would be wise for those who are planning travel to Mexico to regularly check the State Department Travel Advisory site at travel.state.gov and click the travel advisory tab at the top of the page for the latest updates. Conditions can change rapidly so this should be checked often prior to travel for any country.
Europe, especially major destinations like the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Spain remain under the threat of terrorism with some European intelligence agencies rating the threat from likely to very likely. The U.S. State Department rates all of the above countries at advisory level 2 stating: “exercise increased caution due to terrorism.” It also states that “terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks”.
In 2017 alone, there were 4 terror attacks in the UK, 5 in France, and 1 in Spain, Germany and Belgium. Attacks are trending up each year, and with ISIS’ defeat in Syria and Iraq, many fighters have returned to their countries and are actively recruiting via social media and plotting attacks.
When planning travel anywhere in the world, including tourist destinations within the United States, it is important to be smart and always maintain situational awareness while you are traveling.
5. Important Travel Safety Tips
1. Be alert and vigilant to everything going on around you. Adherence to this tip is the most important thing you can do while traveling internationally. Always remain alert to individuals who are exhibiting unusual behavior or look out of place. When you see this, report it. Too many terrorist incidents happen because someone who noticed something odd about someone or something did not report it. Keep ample space between yourself and other people. Petty crime and pick pocketers are common problems in many countries. Don’t store valuables in exterior pockets. If you get lost, avoid looking confused. Don’t pull out a map in public, but step into a store, pub, restaurant, etc., to ask for help and get your bearings out of public sight. Be very aware of vehicular traffic and vehicle access to where you are walking. Occurrences where vehicles are used by terrorists to run over innocent pedestrians are on the increase (Nice, Berlin, London, Barcelona and New York City). Many recent terrorist events in Europe have been carried out with “everyday objects” like vehicle and knives.
2. When possible, avoid popular social places such as restaurants, bars, shopping areas and entertainment areas during peak activity times. The 2015 Paris mass-causality terrorist attack that left 130 dead and hundreds injured occurred at popular nightspots, on a Friday evening, targeting diners and a packed auditorium at the Bataclan concert hall. The terrorists will always target peak traffic times to maximize carnage, so altering your plan to enjoy popular sites during the less crowded times of day, or days of the week can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a statistic. Also, avoid mass transportation during peak times. The terrorists continue to target mass transportation, subways, train stations and buses. Consider staying at non-western branded hotels and instead seek out smaller, non-chain hotels or bed and breakfasts. If the terrorists target hotels, it will be the large hotels where Americans stay; so don’t stay there.
3. Blend in with your environment. Avoid wearing typical American apparel items like baseball caps, cowboy boots, sports jerseys and “I am an American” type of clothing. This tip is most important to prevent becoming a target for crime. Pick pocketing and petty crime is prevalent in many European cities, and Americans are heavily targeted. If you are an American traveler/tourist, in the eyes of the pick pocketer, you are wealthy.
Americans are easily picked out of a crowd because they are usually in groups, talking loudly, taking pictures, making eye contact, being animated and wearing conspicuous clothing. The most obvious thing that is immediately noticeable is clothing and shoes. Americans are probably the only ones who wear white tennis shoes. This screams American. You don’t see many shorts or bright clothing in many countries. Do a little research and get a feel for how people dress different times of year in the countries that you will be visiting. You can even buy some inexpensive clothing once you arrive overseas. Remember, blending in reduces attention.
4. Always give yourself an out. Think ahead to an escape path or exit wherever you are, outside or indoors. Imagine the kinds of scenarios that could take place and consider what you would do if you find yourself in an unfortunate situation. It’s too bad to have to think this way, but it trains your mind to be prepared for unfortunate contingencies . A vehicle slammed into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London. There is nowhere to escape on a bridge. Re-think these kinds of experiences if the bridge is open to motor vehicles as well.
5. Protect your valuables. Carry limited cash and one credit card. Write your credit card and phone number down on a piece of paper and store it way from your valuables so you can immediately call the card issuer if it is lost or stolen. Keep one copy of the number with you and leave one at home with someone. Also, make a copy of your passport and keep a copy in your luggage and one with someone back home. Notify your credit card company before you go and let them know the countries and time frames when you will be traveling.
Carry a dummy wallet and keep a small amount of money in this wallet. Your “real” wallet will have your cash and credit card preferably in a pouch around your neck. If you are forced to hand over your valuables, give them the “fake” wallet that contains minimal cash, and they will leave you alone. The rest of your money is hidden away. They make pouches that you can wear around your neck and under your clothing that are large enough to hold your passport, cash and cards. This is the safest place to keep your valuables. Never keep your valuables in a rear pants pocket or exterior back pack pocket.
Planning and preparation is always your best defense in reducing risk and ensuring your travel safety. Remember, don’t travel less, just travel smarter.
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