Global travel: Risky business

11 Mar 2024 by Tamsin Cocks
Medical transfer (istock.com/sierrarat)

Business travellers need their wits about them more than ever these days – with strategies in place should the worst happen.

Seasoned travellers know it’s not a question of if things go wrong, but when. From flight delays to lost luggage, travel is full of unexpected hiccups. In extreme situations, a missed connection could be the least of your worries. And as travel starts to surge again post-pandemic, so too do the risks. International SOS recorded a 16 per cent increase in security and medical alerts issued in 2023 compared to 2022.

Michael Rogers, chief security analyst at International SOS, says: “The resurgence in global travel comes at a time in which the travel security landscape is increasingly complicated by geopolitical events, natural disasters, emerging diseases, social unrest and evolving crime dynamics. Today, more than ever, travellers need to remain informed of prevailing risks and mitigation measures.”

Risk and security management companies act as both morbid fortune teller and guardian angel. Analysts pore over forecasts and trends to assess existing and emerging risks, and create strategies to mitigate against these threats and enable business travellers to get their jobs done. Should things hit the fan, they are also poised to execute emergency protocols that cover everything from hostage situations to volcano eruptions.

Saskia Veldhuizen, senior security coordinator at international risk management firm Healix, explains: “Our job is different every day. One day we might be providing intelligence reports on political elections, the next day we’re conducting full-scale evacuations from Khartoum or dealing with a kidnapping in Haiti.”

Be prepared

Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to risk. Experts stress the importance of doing your background research and having situational awareness. Are there any political tensions? Is it monsoon season? Are there cultural or religious dress codes to be observed?

Simple preventative measures, such as making sure your vaccinations are up to date and booking a meet-and-greet service at the airport can go a long way to making sure you don’t encounter issues.

Online tools like International SOS’s 2024 Interactive Risk Map can help, with a guide to risk assessments across the world on everything from weather events to ongoing conflicts.

The rating is determined by analysing multiple factors from security concerns, such as crime rates and political stability, to medical considerations such as healthcare infrastructure or disease outbreaks. For the first time ever, the 2024 Risk Map also included an outline of climate change risks as a result of extreme weather events getting, well, more extreme.

In 2023, Bangladesh, India and Laos all saw record-high temperatures, with Thailand reaching a blistering 45.4ºC and China’s Xinjiang hitting 52.2ºC. Cyclone Freddy displaced half a million people in southern Africa and a sandstorm shut down Beijing. The US had 28 separate billion-dollar (at least) weather and climate-related incidents in 2023, including wildfires, cyclones and floods.

Veldhuizen agrees that natural disasters are increasingly affecting business travellers: “If you’re not aware of the season, you might be going to Florida and two days later you’re in a Cat 3 hurricane. Or if a traveller has asthma and they go somewhere with wildfires, the smoke and decreased air quality could mean a potential medical issue arising.”

Even if you’re not actually in the destination affected, knock-on flight disruptions can mean significant delays and missed meetings. Climate change is also increasingly being linked to medical concerns, with rising temperatures, for example, likely to increase outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue fever or malaria. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 249 million cases of malaria in 2022 – up from the pre-pandemic level of 233 million in 2019.

Data privacy (istock.com/napong rattanaraktiya)

Everyday risk

Thankfully, most business travellers are likely to be avoiding the most high-risk and extreme situations, but that doesn’t mean they are out of harm’s way. Veldhuizen says: “One of the biggest risks for business travellers are just the routine risks that get overlooked. Things like road traffic accidents, stomach illnesses, pickpocketing. Something simple like having your wallet stolen is so widespread that sometimes we forget to use mitigation strategies. But these things can be hard to deal with when you’re in an unfamiliar country.

“Again, some of the solutions can also be overlooked, things like: maintain a low profile and avoid sharing personal information. If you’re on social media, maybe wait for 24 hours before posting your location.”

There’s also what World Travel Protection calls “negative behaviours” around things like gender, race or religion. An Opinium online survey, commissioned by the international travel risk management provider, revealed that 57 per cent of business travellers have experienced or witnessed negative behaviours when travelling abroad for work.

According to the report, 20 per cent of travellers had received unwanted attention or been sidelined because of their race or gender – with women reporting this twice as much as men. One in seven (14 per cent) have hidden or seen colleagues hide their sexuality, while ten per cent have refused to travel to countries with anti LGBTQ+ laws.

“Witnessing incidences of prejudice and abuse is still too prevalent for business travellers, and when you’re in a different country with a different culture it can be difficult to know how to respond in order not to put yourself or your travelling party at risk,” says Kate Fitzpatrick, regional security director, EMEA, at World Travel Protection.

The survey also highlights the need for organisations to understand the individual risk profile of each business traveller, which should consider things like gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, and physical and mental health.

Female travellers are more likely to face sexual harassment, so more advice and strategies in place should be offered. Then there’s being aware that some cultures might frown upon physical contact between genders, so shaking hands at a meeting might be better avoided.

Veldhuizen remarks: “The more information a client gives us, the more bespoke advice we can give. For example, perhaps the hotel you’ve chosen is frequently used by politicians, which might raise your profile unnecessarily or attract protests – is there another hotel you can use? We’ve also got a rating of public transport options and can tell you to avoid a particular bus if it has a poor safety record.”

Cyber safety (istock.com/alexsl)

Cyber attacks

One of the growing threats to business travellers is the risk to cybersecurity. Unsecured public wifi networks are prime stalking grounds for digital highwaymen, and hacker groups such as DarkHotel are known to target high-profile business travellers with sophisticated phishing emails, malware and botnet automation.

According to NordVPN’s cybersecurity expert Adrianus Warmenhoven, hotel rooms can be one of the most dangerous places of all. He points to “evil twin” wifi connections, where hackers create fake, unprotected wifi hotspots with an unsuspicious name like “Guest Wifi” or “Free Hotel Wifi” to steal private information, while “juice jacking” is where malware is installed on public USB charging ports to steal passwords, credit card information and other sensitive data.

To avoid these traps, Warmenhoven says: “Ask reception for the exact name and passwordfor the wifi to avoid connecting to an ‘evil twin’ network. Use a VPN service to encrypt your data and prevent third parties from intercepting it. It’s always a good idea to enable a firewall while using public wifi – and disable your devices from making automatic connections.”

Veldhuizen adds: “Make sure you are downloading from reputable sites, using VPNs and two-factor authentication as well. You might also need to consider whether you should bring your business laptop on a trip – and whether it should get checked for spyware by your IT department when you get back.”

While cyber crime may seem borderless, some countries are better protected than others. According to NordLayer’s Global Remote Work Index, the top five safest countries for cybersecurity are Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Germany and Saudi Arabia. (China is 30th, while the UK is 36th.)

A little common sense goes a long way, but ultimately there’s only so much you can do before a professional needs to step in. More and more corporations are seeking professional risk management to protect their travellers – according to Transparency Market Research, the global corporate travel security market is anticipated to grow to US$15.3 billion over the next seven years.

Companies might wince at the thought of ploughing extra resources into defending against the “what ifs” – but the ultimate cost of not planning ahead could be much higher.

International SOS Risk Destinations 2024

Most dangerous destinations

  • South Sudan
  • Afghanistan
  • Syria
  • Libya
  • Somalia
  • Lebanon, Palestinian Territories and Russia were also flagged as high concern in December 2023.

Safest destinations

  • Iceland
  • Luxembourg
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • Denmark
  • The report also highlighted improvements in access to quality medical care in Bolivia and Côte d’Ivoire, and lower security risks in parts of Nepal.
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The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
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