Myths vs. Realities: The Geopolitical Risk Consultant and the Tourist

There was a time, not so long ago, when tourists could convince themselves that an inexpensive trip to a unstable country would be safe, as long as they stayed at the resort. It was a myth most people in the geopolitical risk consulting world never believed. That myth was resoundingly shattered for everyone else on Friday, when terrorists attacked a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia, killing at least 39 people, and injuring 36 more, mostly foreign tourists from the UK and Ireland. This wasn't the first time Sousse had been a target; in October 2013, a suicide bomber targeted a hotel in the popular resort town. That attack wasn't as serious. Only the suicide bomber died, after guards spotted him and chased him off, leading him to detonate his explosives on an empty beach. Perhaps that made people feel more confident that resort visitors were safe in Sousse, since the guards basically did their job. And so tourists continued to came back, keeping Tunisia's massive tourism industry alive despite ongoing violence in parts of that country, and the knowledge that the resort town had been targeted already. In the wake of Friday's attack, of course, hundreds have canceled their planned trips. Some suggest that Friday's attack may spell disaster for the vital tourism industry in Tunisia. I think enough uninformed people exist to keep it alive, but I doubt it'll thrive in the short term. 

Tourists have a way of convincing themselves that if they practice sound personal safety tips, and remain aware of their surroundings, they will be safe. And for most people, on most trips, that's true. But as people start to travel to the most remote parts of the world, or to more unstable ones, personal safety tips like wearing a money belt or not wearing flashy jewelry simply aren't enough to ensure a safe trip. Given my professional role as an independent consultant, I've counseled friends for years on whether their exotic destination was a good choice, and how to be prepared if something should go wrong. As they've watched the news unfold, they've called me increasingly more frequently, and I've been glad to see them taking the dangers more seriously. Do some still go to dangerous places? Yes. But I'm more confident that they're better informed and able to handle a crisis. But what about those people who don't have a geopolitical risk consultant on speed dial?  

While doing some research for a personal trip, I was recently amazed to find that leaders in the travel industry, like TripAdvisor and Hipmunk, do not have sections on geopolitical risk factors affecting travelers. I suppose it's an occupational benefit, and not a hazard, that I automatically analyze the geopolitical situation in a destination country. But for the average traveler,  TripAdvisor will tell you about the "sleep quality" of your hotel, but rarely if the hotel has excellent security or a good safety record. They do however mention if a travel warning is in place for a destination, though most people won't be able to tell much from the standard boilerplate warning text. Hipmunk will help you rank your travel options by "agony" involved, but not by how safe the airport is, or whether the hotel is located in an oft-targeted area. It seems so obvious to me, if these are hoping to be one-stop destinations for travelers planning trips, that safety and security would be major factors in travelers' decision making processes. If you're listening, TripAdvisor and Hipmunk, I've got some advice for you- hire a few geopolitical risk consultants and make sure your users are truly informed when researching travel. 

Many people still believe that geopolitical risk analysis is only for business travelers, looking to open new markets and close major deals. But the reality is that geopolitical risk analysis entirely customizable to the needs of every sort of traveler. A contested election that sparks violence, a major service strike that suspends flights, a natural disaster that strains a country's weak power grid, or a banking crisis that results in empty ATMs will affect businesses and tourists alike. What would you do without wifi or in the event of a shuttered airport? Would you have enough cash on hand to buy the bare necessities? Would you know how to get out of a country or how to contact people who could help? How would you be able to get in touch with family? These are questions that any tourist should be able to answer confidently. 

It's true that most countries that rely on tourism have a serious interest in keeping their resorts open and safe even as violence rages elsewhere. Look at Mexico, or Egypt. But just because they have that interest doesn't mean that they'll be able to keep tourists safe if terrorists are determined to target those areas.

It's time to stop pretending that resorts are perfectly safe oases of delicious food, endless drinks and clear water. For terror groups (which unlike petty thieves do not rely on the presence of tourists for the purposes of making money) resorts are the perfect places to target the most foreigners and grab the world's attention. And as soft targets- that is those without the multi-layer security features of government buildings or military bases- they'll continue to prove relatively easy to hit.  

As tourist season heats up, call your local trusted geopolitical risk consultant and ask for an overview of the political and security environment in your destination country before you book a trip. It's never bad to have more information and be better prepared should something happen. And the best part is that once you learn what to look for, analyzing geopolitical risks for your destinations will quickly become an automatic part of your vacation planning process, helping you feel more confident that you know what awaits you at your destination and making you feel better equipped to handle any situation that may arise.