By Doug Wilson
Spring break is arriving 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 groups and individual adventurers make their 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 and personal safety threat of the countries they are traveling to, particularly in the popular destinations of Mexico and Europe.
Mexico is a popular and affordable destination for college and high school groups, but there is widespread instability because of crime and violence associated with drug and human trafficking. It is important to know that many areas outside of the popular resorts can be dangerous, especially after dark, so it is important to remain on the resort property during this time of heightened caution in Mexico.
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 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 incidents in the past several years of violence spilling into resort properties, including Cancun and Los Cabos, along with incidents of tourists receiving tainted alcohol on some resorts.
The U.S. State Department has four travel advisory levels, with 4 being the highest. Mexico is rated a 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 percent of Mexico’s GDP, is brought in 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. Go to travel.state.gov and click the travel advisory tab at the top of the page for the latest updates. Conditions can change rapidly, so check this site often before travel to any country.
Europe – especially major destinations such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Spain – remain under the threat of terrorism, with some European intelligence agencies rating the threat as likely to very likely. The U.S. State Department rates all of the above countries at level 2, advising visitors to “exercise increased caution due to terrorism,” It also states, “terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks.”
In 2017 alone, there were four terror attacks in the UK, five in France and one in Spain, Germany and Belgium. Attacks are trending up each year, and with ISIS’ defeat in Syria and Iraq, fighters have returned to their countries and are actively recruiting.
Whether your travels take you to Mexico, Europe or anywhere else in the world – including major tourist destinations in the United States – it is important to be smart and maintain situational awareness. Following are safety tips to help reduce your risk of becoming a victim of crime or involved in a terrorist incident:
1. Be alert and vigilant to everything going on around you.
This is the most important thing you can do while traveling. Always be 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 did not report it.
Keep ample space between yourself and other people. Petty crime and pickpocketing 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 or other public place to ask for help and get your bearings out of public sight. Be aware of traffic and vehicle access to where you are walking. Incidents of vehicles being used by terrorists to run over innocent pedestrians are on the increase, including in Nice, Berlin, London, Barcelona and New York City. Many recent terrorist events in Europe have been carried out with ordinary objects such as vehicles and knives.
2. When possible, avoid popular social places during times of peak activity.
This includes restaurants, bars, shopping areas and entertainment venues. The 2015 Paris attack that left 130 dead and hundreds injured occurred at popular nightspots on a Friday evening. Restaurants and a packed auditorium at the Bataclan concert hall were targeted. Terrorists strike during peak traffic times to maximize carnage, so altering your plan to visit popular sites during less crowded times can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a statistic. Also, avoid mass transportation during peak times. Terrorists continue to target subways, train stations and buses.
Consider staying at non-western-branded hotels and, instead, seek out smaller, non-chain hotels or bed and breakfast accommodations. If 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 such as baseball caps, cowboy boots, sports jerseys and anything else that declares you an American. Pickpocketing and petty crime is prevalent in many European cities, and Americans are heavily targeted. If you are an American traveler, in the eyes of the pickpocketer, 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. Large groups draw more attention than small groups. Otherwise, the most immediately noticeable trait is clothing and shoes. Americans probably are the only tourists who wear white tennis shoes when traveling. This screams American. You don’t see shorts or bright clothing in some countries. Do a little research and get a feel for how people dress during 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 and have 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 they happened. It’s too bad to have to think this way, but it trains your mind to be prepared for contingencies. You might want to avoid some situations entirely. A vehicle slammed into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London. There is nowhere to escape on a bridge, so re-think these outings 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. Notify your credit card company before you go and let them know the countries and time frames when you will be traveling.
Also, make a copy of your passport and keep a copy in your luggage and one with someone back home.
Carry a dummy wallet with a small amount of money. If you are forced to hand over your valuables, give them the dummy wallet. Keep your cash and credit card elsewhere. The safest place to keep your valuables is in a pouch around your neck. You can buy pouches to be worn around your neck or under your clothing that are large enough to hold your passport, cash and cards. Never keep your valuables in a rear pants pocket or exterior backpack pocket.
Travel can be dangerous, but with a bit of planning and preparation, you can minimize the risk and ensure your safety. Don’t travel less, just travel smarter.
Doug Wilson is a consultant with Counter Threat Group, LLC, and served 28 years in the military as an intelligence officer. He also is assistant vice president of advancement at Samford University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org