French unions regularly shut down trains and blocked streets this past fall. In Hong Kong, clashes between protesters and the local police escalated late in 2019. Meanwhile, pro-independence protests in Spain turned violent in October.
Some experts are predicting these kinds of disruptions could only increase in the coming year, so subscribing to Google Alerts and news sites like CNN may not be enough to protect your clients.
“The number one potential risk for travelers in 2020 will be civil unrest caused by geopolitical shifts,” said Matthew Bradley, regional security director at International SOS, a medical and security travel risk services company.
More than half (52%) of the organizations that International SOS surveyed for its “2020 Travel Risk Outlook” believe geopolitical threats and civil unrest will be among the most likely causes of modified itineraries in 2020.
“Anecdotally, we have seen an increase in requests for information and assistance from our clients related to geopolitical shifts in Hong Kong, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Lebanon and France, among other countries,” Bradley said.
“The unifying trend behind why geopolitical shifts are seen as so risky to travelers is due to the general sense of instability, unpredictability and speed of change in this space,” Bradley said. “The consistent theme and sudden nature of geopolitical shifts have become a weakness for organizations when it comes to travel risk management.”
International SOS operates regional security centers that are monitoring events on a 24/7 basis, and travel advisors and travelers can refer to the company’s 2020 Travel Risk Map, which shares country-by-country medical and security risk ratings based on recent events, upcoming events and findings from their “2020 Travel Risk Outlook.”
Resources to pass along to clients
“Setting up Google Alerts is one way to stay on top of the news, but it does not provide advice about mitigating the risks faced by travelers,” Bradley cautioned.
Sarah Gricus Marshall, accessible adventure advisor at TravelAble, LLC, has her clients sign up for the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to monitor developing situations and receive travel advisories.
Rob Stern, founder of robplansyourtrip.com, in Raleigh, North Carolina, uses the free email alerts from GardaWorld Corporation, a Canadian private security firm based in Montreal, Quebec. “You run the risk of being inundated, because you come to realize from their daily alerts that there are issues somewhere in the world every day,” he said. “But they provide an excellent service.”
Aside from GardaWorld, Stern also subscribes to some news websites. He said “the pace and quality of updates varies, but I like http://livingingreece.gr/strikes/, https://www.summerinitaly.com/traveltips/transport-strikes-in-italy, https://www.france24.com/en/, www.thelocal.it and www.thelocal.fr.”
“When I have clients traveling to vulnerable areas, I check these sites before we book, prior to departure, and during a client's trip,” Stern said.
During the general strike in France on Dec. 5, Stern had clients who needed re-accommodation after SNCF canceled their schedules and refunded the client’s train trip between Strasbourg and Stuttgart. Monitoring the situation through his alerts, Stern was able to rebook his customers on an airline, and had them home three days after the train cancellations.
“As an agent, you have to jump on alternative transport options quickly, since prices often jump during a crisis, as do one-way car rental rates,” Stern said.
“There's a fine line between a strike that causes a travel delay, and civil unrest, or fear of it, preventing access to airports and train stations,” he said. “Travel protection plans may not cover more than food and lodging for delays in these situations, if anything. And coverage also often doesn't help clients who have other prepaid arrangements down the road, in different cities or countries,” said Stern.
“I keep up with current events, airline waiver notices, and regularly check the Department of State’s country travel info pages for officially vetted security updates,” said Christina Schlegel, travel advisor and owner at Bluetail Travel, in Arlington, Virginia. Prior to launching her travel agency, Schlegel worked in international security, so she considers monitoring civil unrest and offering alerts to her clients a crucial part of her brand.
In her clients’ online and paper itineraries, Schlegel lists contact information for U.S. embassies and consulates in the areas they will be traveling in, the travel insurance 24/7 number, as well as instructions on how to call the in-country equivalent of 911, Schlegel said.
“Civil unrest, extreme weather and terrorism can strike unexpectedly. I want my travelers to be prepared, and they appreciate the peace of mind from having those emergency contacts at the ready,” she said.
Stern agreed with Schlegel, that his personal brand is on the line when things go wrong, and he wants to be out in front of issues both for his client’s sake, and because he likes to differentiate his service by being there for his clients throughout a trip.
“When you personally know that hotels in France may be sympathetic about waiving penalties, but those in Germany, or other destinations later in the trip, may not be, you can distinguish yourself in these moments,” he said.
Margie Lenau', Wonderland Family Vacations, in Walker, Michigan, says suppliers are usually very helpful keeping her informed.
“I watch the news, and if I see something that I’m curious about, I call the supplier for more information,” Lenau’ said. “I also get alerts from the airlines about problems, like recently, when there were industrial actions in Amsterdam and France, and flights were interrupted. While you can’t predict everything, we do the best we can to stay informed.”
Canadian-born Jennifer Borgh, a destination wedding specialist and owner of Borghinvilla, a wedding venue in Jamaica, highly recommends Canada’s travel advisory services. “I put a link to the site on each client invoice so they could check it out for themselves,” she said.
Borgh feels agents who specialize in a specific country and travel there often very likely can gain a competitive advantage during civil unrest, because they have a deeper understanding of where their clients are traveling to, and can cut through the clutter of ambiguous media coverage.
For example, when Jamaica issued a travel advisory last year for non-tourist areas, many uninitiated travel advisors panicked. “But those areas always had a problem – it was just that Jamaica was finally doing something about fixing it, and that caused the travel advisory. With proper education on a country, a traveler could easily avoid certain areas (just like we do in North America), and still enjoy their vacation,” Borgh said.
Barbara Kahn, senior travel consultant at Vista Travel Inc., in Colonia, New Jersey, has two sets of clients leaving this week – one for Chile, and one for Hong King. “I’ve been staying in close touch with my suppliers. For my clients going to Hong Kong, I’m in direct contact with the hotel where the family is staying,” Kahn said.