The risks to business travellers worldwide

Martin Stone

Deputy Head of Research, Control Risks Information Services (CRIS)

The list of dangerous locations that business travellers are likely to visit is growing. Every year more and more cities are added to the unofficial danger list of destinations where civil war, terrorism or crime are major hazards to the unwary traveller. Fortunately for the business traveller, the worst destinations are well off the business map - Afghanistan, Liberia, Somalia. But there are several major international business centres where care must be taken to avoid risks ranging from being assassinated by terrorists to being a victim of kidnap, carjack, robbery with violence or being caught up in instability.

While Johannesburg is enjoying a post-apartheid boom as the new economic capital of southern Africa, crime rates there are growing rapidly: murder rates in Jo'burg and its surrounding province may have overtaken Medellin in Colombia to become the highest in the world. The frequency of armed robbery increased from an estimated one every 15 minutes in 1990 to one every six minutes in 1995. The situation has become so bad that parts of the city's central business district are virtually deserted after 6pm, and crime is now a problem even in the formerly safe satellite suburbs of suburbs of Sandton and Rosebank.

Similarly, Moscow's growing attraction as a business centre has brought with it an enormous increase in crime. Foreigners' perceived wealth makes them particularly attractive targets for criminals, and bag-snatching, muggings and break-ins are increasingly common in both Moscow and St Petersburg. Muggings are frequent in pedestrian subways in or near the centre of Moscow - even at busy times of the day. The problem is exacerbated by police dishonesty: a Moscow police chief a few years ago claimed that as many as 90 per cent of the city's police officers accepted bribes. Officers cannot always be counted on to render assistance in dangerous situations or to report an incident truthfully.

Lagos airport retains a dubious reputation as the world's most problematic destination for the business traveller. Although demands for 'dash' (bribes) at the airport have declined considerably in line with government efforts to clean up the airport, the problem has not been eradicated. In the past officials have aimed to earn $100 in bribes from each newcomer. Patience, a confident air and a determination to sit it out should ensure a reasonably smooth passage. There are signs all over the airport stating that bribery is illegal, the traveller should point to them and say so, or say that their company prohibits it. If harassment continues, contact one of your airline's uniformed staff members. Pay only as a last resort and limit payment to a 'tip' of a low denomination note.

There are a few places where growing business opportunities make trips necessary, but where security problems make extensive precautions essential. The best example is Algiers, where travellers are almost inviting terrorist attack if they arrive disoriented and unprepared at the airport. Since Islamic extremists began to single out foreign expatriates and visitors for attack in 1993, virtually all companies doing business in Algiers have established special arrangements that provide 24-hour protection for visitors. Many companies have taken suites in the city's main international hotel; all visitors are met at the airport and escorted by a local driver and often a bodyguard, and no-one leaves their hotel unless to make an essential business appointment.

Several other business centres contain other types of risks. Kidnap is a threat in Colombia, though Bogota is by no means as risky as rural areas of Colombia. Pakistan's business capital Karachi appears to be sinking inexorably into a permanent cycle of ethnic violence, kidnap and political shootings. Terrorists are active in several important business centres, with the level of bombing ranging from high in places like Lima, medium in Athens and Istanbul, to relatively infrequent in Madrid and London. Crime is a serious problem in at least some areas of cities from New York City to Rio de Janeiro and Bombay.

But on the other side of the coin, risk perceptions are often out of date. This is particularly the case in the Middle East, where terrorist bombing make headlines, but are rarely followed up by sustained periods of violence. Both Cairo and Beirut are now safe cities in which to do business, despite their lingering unjustified reputations for Islamic extremist terrorism. Tel Aviv is rarely affected by Palestinian violence or terrorism but associated with both in the minds of many foreign business travellers. This syndrome has now extended to Jeddah and Riyadh following two recent large-scale but so far exceptional bomb attacks against American military installations.

How to stay safe

However, it is relatively simple for travel agents to help their business clients stay safe. The first thing to do is check if the location is on the 'danger list' of international business destinations:
Algiers, Bogota, Medellin, Johannesburg, Moscow, Karachi, Lagos, Port Moresby
If so, then your client's company is likely to have already arranged special security measures for the entire time in the destination.

There are several other business destination where travellers face a higher than average level of crime or terrorism:

  • Africa: Abidjan, Cape Town, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, Nairobi;
  • Latin America: Cali, Caracas, Guayaquil, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo;
  • Former Soviet Union: Baku, Kiev, St Petersburg;
  • Asia: Colombo, Shaka, Manila, Phnom Penh;
  • Middle East: Baghdad, Istanbul, Tel Aviv;
  • Europe: Athens, Sarajevo.
There is a lot business travellers can do to stay safe. In most hot spots successful and safe visits are possible with only minor, sensible precautions. Although the following tips refer mainly to the more dangerous destinations - such as Moscow - they can equally apply to any unfamiliar city throughout the world.

Before travel
Brief yourself as fully as possible before departure. Some cities are far worse than their reputations; others are much safer. Get to know the current situation, scams and dangers. Always carry the emergency number of your embassy or other national representative, the local office of your credit card company and all other important numbers. Are there any dates coming up that would make it best to postpone your trip?

Money and valuables
It's always best to change as much money as you'll need before you arrive or before you are encumbered by baggage. On arrival at the airport, check the airport identity card of porters before handing over luggage. While moving around, carry spending money only - but consider carrying a small amount to buy off muggers. Never display money, personal documents or luxury items such as cameras while walking around.

Keep luggage to a minimum, since overburdened travellers are easy targets for thieves. At airports, in hotel lobbies and while travelling, try to keep luggage in sight at all times.

Travelling around
In most cases, arrange to be met on arrival by a known contact. In the worst places, companies fax a photo and description of the meeter to the traveller before departure. There have been cases where a traveller's name and company has been copied from a genuine placard, used to entrap and later rob the arriving passenger further up the line of 'meeters and greeters'. Familiarise yourself with the local taxi culture - are they safe? is it best to agree a fare in advance? - and so on.

Hotels are far less secure than many travellers realise. Always double lock hotel rooms and leave on the light and radio when leaving the room, and establish the identity of visitors before opening the door. Use the hotel safe to store most cash, traveller's cheques and airline tickets.

Out and about
Try and be disciplined. Only go out 'touristing' in safe destinations. In the unfamiliar and riskier places it usually pays to restrict yourself to the safety of hotels, particularly at night. If you do go out, get to know the layout of the city and which areas are unsafe, and therefore best avoided. Avoid consulting maps in public, as this makes you an obvious target for pickpockets or muggers. Familiarise yourself with the law: do you need to carry your passport or other ID at all times, or is a photocopy acceptable?

Dress codes
Avoid wearing ostentatious or 'designer name' clothing, very expensive watches or jewellery, and never wear clothes or carry bags that your name or that of your company in public. Women visitors should seek advice about any specific restrictions in advance, particularly if their destination is in an Islamic or particularly traditional country.

If renting a car, plan your route as much in advance as possible. Are there any roads that should be avoided? It's always best to drive with the windows up, and the doors locked. In hot countries, make sure the car has air-conditioning. Never leave anything visible in a parked car.

If the worst happens
Never put up resistance against robbers, who may resort to violence. Try to remain calm and locate the nearest police station or post as soon as possible after the incident, and then get in touch with your national diplomatic representative.

Control Risks Information Services on-line Travel Security Guide provides comprehensive and up-to-date information on risks to business travellers in 110 countries worldwide. They can be contacted by phone on +44 171 222 1552 or by fax on +44 171 222 362.