Written by Matt Furlane
Photographed courtesy of Izzy Gerosa
Every year, millions of people travel for vacation, to conduct business, to learn about another culture, and for various other reasons. According to the Aviation Safety Network, 2016 was the second safest year on record for the airline industry, and over 3.5 billion people safely arrived at their destinations. With the number of new airports increasing every year, the number of people traveling will continue to go up, but with more travel comes a greater need to be aware of potential dangers and the importance of taking precautions to ensure a safe trip abroad. In addition to doing basic things like properly researching your destination, leaving valuables at home, securing your passport, locking your luggage, and traveling in a group, there are still other steps to take when going abroad.
First, watch for scams and entrapment. It’s one thing to get suckered into a tourist trap and spend too much money on worthless trinkets, but it’s another to be taken in by scams that cost thousands of dollars. For example, when I traveled to Shanghai, I was approached by an Asian man and woman who spoke really good English and wanted to know if I was interested in going to the nearby “tea festival.” I was in a crowded park and initially took them at their word. Why be paranoid? After about ten minutes, I realized that we were moving further away from the public area and the “tea festival” was not anywhere “nearby.” I politely informed the couple that I needed to go back to my hotel and would come back tomorrow. The woman was persistent, but I couldn’t see any tea festival, so I left. Later, I searched on the Internet and found a whole list of complaints by Western tourists in China about the infamous “tea” scams, where unwitting travelers are duped into spending hundreds of dollars on cheap tea (giving new meaning to the term “Shanghai-ed”). The lesson from the story is to always be skeptical, stay near public spaces, and do online research about each city or country you’re visiting.
In an ideal world, you could simply take life at face value and not have any doubts, but the real world is different. “Excuse me, can you carry this for me, my hands are full,” “Pardon me, can you watch my luggage while I use the toilet?” and “I need your help!” could all be signals of potential entrapment. It could be a woman with a baby or an elderly man seeking help; it doesn’t matter. The best option in such situations is to walk away or politely point people in the direction they should go for whatever need they apparently think you, a complete stranger, can help them with. The last thing you want on your vacation is to be found holding ten kilos of heroin or have your photo taken by law enforcement with a criminal you have never met.
You may remember hearing about Otto Warmbier, the American young man who was sent home from North Korea in a coma earlier this year. Many believe that Warmbier had been framed for stealing a propaganda sign in order that officials would have reason for his arrest. You can see similar entrapment schemes in South Korea, where foreigners are targeted with offers for prostitution, drugs, simply teaching English on the side, or maybe even something more sinister. For more information about scams, I recommend visiting travelscams.org.
The second thing a traveler should always be aware of is terrorist threats. Although you probably have a greater chance of being hit by lightning or being in an automobile accident, terrorism is still a real threat. In 2017 alone, there have been several major terror attacks in Europe that have involved everything from knives to vehicles. I strongly recommend websites like Interpol.int and travel.state.gov for the latest information about terrorism worldwide.
In the past, maybe you could carelessly backpack across Asia or Europe, going anywhere you wanted, whenever you wanted, but those days may be over. So what should you do to prevent yourself from becoming mixed up in terrorism dangers? For starters, if threat levels are high in the country you want to visit, then simply choose another destination. If you do decide to travel to a threat location, then be aware that certain areas are more likely to be potential targets, areas such as open-air markets, theaters, and especially night clubs that attract international tourists. You might not view yourself as a target, but criminal elements do, so be aware of your surroundings.
The third thing to watch out for when traveling is knock-out drugs and poison. This past February, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was poisoned by two women with a powerful nerve agent at an airport in Malaysia. It was in broad daylight. Although the circumstances were rare, the fact that it happened means others may try it also. It’s not uncommon to hear about Western travelers being found unconscious in a pool or mysteriously dead in their hotel rooms.
This past July, several tourists in Mexico were poisoned, and the U.S. State Department has issued warnings about the danger of tainted alcohol. In Thailand, tourist deaths can reach as high as 80 per year. Everyone’s circumstances vary, but all tourist deaths are something to take note of. For each person, unfortunately, there is a unique threat. Female tourists are sometimes the primary target, but male tourists should also be watchful. Maybe the local crime syndicate wants you to gamble a little longer, or the corrupt local police are running a prostitution ring and your drink is spiked with a high-grade aphrodisiac. Stranger things have happened.
My purpose for writing about these topics is not to scare people, but to draw awareness to the reality of the world that is out there. Whether it’s criminal syndicates or corrupt law enforcement, people need to take the necessary steps to travel safely. The majority of crimes can be avoided by traveling in groups, researching your place of travel on the Internet, and just using plain common sense in order to travel safe and travel smart.