Heeding CDC, State Department advisories necessary in post-9/11 world

By Doug Wilson
Special to The Alabama Baptist

Fall is here and plans are underway for the typical activities that occur around the Christmas holidays and on into the upcoming spring and summer travel seasons. Many schools, churches and individuals will begin thinking ahead for international travel experiences at overseas study centers or for missions trips or leisure travel. 

It is more important than ever for travelers to learn and understand the personal safety issues like crime and terrorism that exist in many parts of the world, especially in the popular tourist destinations of Europe, Asia, Mexico and Central and South America, and in less-traveled countries like India, various countries of the Middle East and those on the African continent. Regardless of the purpose of travel Americans need to become smarter about how they travel and learn how to avoid threats to personal safety. This requires equipping oneself with cultural knowledge, as well as awareness of health and security threats in our post-9/11 world.

The U.S. State Department has four travel advisory levels: Level 1 (blue) is the lowest (“exercise normal precautions”) and Level 4 (red) is the highest (“do not travel”). Travel advisories are posted at travel.state.gov. 

It is wise for those planning to travel internationally to regularly check the State Department travel advisory site and click the travel advisory tab for the latest updates. Conditions can change rapidly so check the website often prior to travel. 

A few notes on some popular travel destinations:

Mexico

Mexico is a very popular and affordable destination for college and high school groups but widespread instability exists in the country due to crime and violence associated with drug and human trafficking. 

Tourism generates almost $20 billion per year in Mexico so the owners and operators of Mexican resorts take security seriously but violence has begun to spill over to some of the resort areas. 

Leaving the resort areas, especially after dark, is never advisable under the current conditions in Mexico. 

Drug and gang-related homicides continue to be a problem. In February 2018 a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) anesthesiologist, Dr. William O’Byrne, was assaulted and beaten in Puerto Vallarta and later died. 

On March 8, 2018, the U.S. State Department closed the consular office at the popular tourist destination of Playa del Carmen due to a ferry explosion and an unidentified explosive device being found on another ferry near the port. 

In the past several years incidents of violence also have occurred near some popular resort spots including Cancun and Los Cabos along with incidents of tourists receiving tainted alcohol at some resorts. 

Mexico is currently rated at advisory Level 2 (“exercise increased caution”). Some states within Mexico are rated as high as Level 4. Most resort areas fall in the Level 2 category. 

Europe

Europe, especially the United Kingdom (U.K.), France, Italy, Germany and Spain, remain under the threat of terrorism. Some European intelligence agencies rate the threat from likely to very likely. The U.S. State Department rates all of these countries at advisory Level 2.  

In the past two years at least 75 people have been killed in terrorist attacks across Europe. ISIS members who previously fought in Syria and Iraq have returned to their countries, many in Europe, and are actively plotting future attacks and recruiting via social media. 

Terrorists have been successful in several European cities with vehicular attacks against pedestrians in popular public venues. 

However attackers are increasingly on foot, like the one who used a handgun and a knife to kill and injure those visiting a famous Christmas market in France in December 2018. 

Africa

The continent of Africa is one of the popular travel destinations for missions trips. Depending on where in Africa you go the risk and threat can vary greatly. 

It is advisable to enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) for any travel to Africa (or anywhere for that matter). Travelers also should review the State Department travel website ahead of time for any recent travel advisories or warnings concerning Africa. 

Along with threat awareness anyone traveling to Africa, the Middle East, South America or Asia should check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (cdc.gov) for necessary immunizations. 

It can take weeks for your immunity to build up after a shot so do this well in advance of a missions trip or leisure travel. It is very important to know the mosquito-borne threat, especially for malaria. You can take prescriptions like Malarone to prevent malaria.

Be smart

Whether your travels take you to Mexico, Europe or anywhere else in the world — including major tourist destinations within the United States — it is important to be smart and always maintain situational awareness. Following safety tips (see below) may help reduce your risk of becoming a victim of crime or being involved in a terrorist incident. 

Editor’s Note — Doug Wilson wrote this article on behalf of Counter Threat Group, LLC. He has traveled internationally more than 40 times to 35 countries. Doug served 28 years in the military as an intelligence officer and currently works at Samford University in Birmingham where he is the assistant vice president of advancement. Doug can be reached at dwilson@counterthreatgrp.com.

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5 important 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. If 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 pickpockets are common problems in many countries. Do not store valuables in exterior pockets. If you get lost avoid looking confused. Do not pull out a map in public but step into a store or restaurant to ask for help and get your bearings away from public sight. 

Be aware of vehicular traffic and vehicle access to where you are walking. Situations where vehicles have been used by terrorists to run over innocent pedestrians are on the increase (Nice, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Barcelona and New York City). Many terrorist events  worldwide have been carried out with “everyday objects” like vehicles and knives.

2. Avoid popular social places such as restaurants, bars, shopping areas and entertainment areas during peak activity times. 

The 2015 Paris mass-casualty 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. Terrorists will always target peak traffic times to maximize damage 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, trains and buses. Don’t stay at Western brand hotels (like Hilton or Marriott) and instead seek out smaller, non-chain hotels or bed and breakfasts. If the terrorists choose to target a hotel chances are it will be the large chain hotels where Americans stay so try not to 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. 

Pickpocketing and petty crime is prevalent in many European cities and Americans are heavily targeted. Thieves are very skilled at picking you out of a crowd. If you are an American traveler, in the eyes of the pickpocketer, you are wealthy.

Americans are identifiable 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. 

The most obvious thing that is immediately noticeable is clothing and shoes. Americans are probably the only ones who wear white tennis shoes when traveling. This screams American. You don’t see shorts or bright clothing in most countries. 

Do a little research and get a feel for how people dress at different times of year in the countries you will be visiting. You can even buy some inexpensive clothing once you arrive overseas. Remember blending in reduces attention.

4. Protect your valuables. 

Carry limited cash and one credit card. Write down your credit card number and the “if lost” phone number, in a jumbled format, on a piece of paper and store it away 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 prepare a color copy of your passport and keep a copy in your luggage and one with someone back home. 

Carry a “fake” wallet and keep a small amount of money in that wallet. Your “real” wallet will have your cash and credit card preferably in a pouch around your neck or a hidden interior pocket. If you are forced to hand over your valuables give them the “fake” wallet  containing minimal cash and they will leave you alone. The rest of your money is safely hidden away. 

Pouches you can wear around your neck and under your clothing are available and 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 backpack pocket.

5. Always have an exit plan.

 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 found yourself in an unfortunate situation. 

It’s sad 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. A bridge has no escape route. Re-think these kinds of experiences if the space is open to motor vehicles as well.

Planning and preparation is always your best defense in reducing risk and ensuring your travel safety. Avoiding risky situations through proper preparation can keep you from an act of crime or violence.  Remember don’t travel less — just travel smarter. (Doug Wilson)

Helpful resources

Travel advisories: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP): https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/step.html