“I’m going to Paris”. Only a few months those four words might have instilled interest, excitement, perhaps even a degree of envy. It’s not the world’s most visited city for nothing. But the City of Light is shining a little less brightly in the aftermath of the horrific November 13 terrorist outrages.
I actually am going to Paris next month for five days, part of a wider European trip. And while I do feel that certain excitement that the French capital engenders, I also confess to some apprehension, a little like I did when I visited New York after September 11 and Mumbai a year after the assault on its Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Now, I realise that the chances of being embroiled in a terrorist attack are close to zero. In 2012, according to The Atlantic magazine, 11,133 people died in terrorism events with the figure set to be higher when the World Heath Organisation (WHO) released more up-to-date figures for subsequent years.
Many of those killed would have died not in western countries but in the turbulent Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia with the figure representing less than two per cent of all violent attacks worldwide.
But one effect of an incident, such as that which occurred on November 13 in Paris with the death of 130 people, is for it to taint a city or country, at least for a time, as a destination. There’s no doubt that last month’s attack has left a certain, albeit temporary, pall over Paris as a place for a holiday.
The instinct is to cancel a visit, as Americans were reported to have done en masse after November 13, switching their Parisian holidays to a vacation in perceived safer European cities such as Budapest. But doing so, as the cliché goes, would be giving into the terrorists. Then again, responsible governments don’t issue traveller safety advisories for no reason.
So, how should I, and other Australian travellers, these holidays approach travel to places that have been subject to or are under threat of terrorism? How concerned should one be when visiting a city like Paris, or, nearer to home, Kuala Lumpur (where I’ve recently been) and Bangkok, Bali, all of which have some official threat level currently attached to them. Of course, as we’re seen from a series of thwarted attacks, and a couple of actual incidents, Australian cities are not immune either.
Neil Fergus, chief executive of Intelligent Risks (IR), is an Australian-based expert on international terrorism, whose corporate and government security consultancy is negotiating a contract with the French Government in relation to safety and security in Paris. His advice on traveller security and safety, as you will see, represents some basic, though potentially invaluable, commonsense.
REALITY CHECK ONE: YOU’RE MORE LIKELY TO BE RUN OVER THAN BLOWN UP
“Irrespective of the global revulsion at recent events in Paris,” says Fergus, “the reality is there is a much greater statistical chance of Australian tourists being injured or killed in a car accident during a visit to Europe or Asia than there is of them being directly impacted by any terrorist event.”
It is critical for travellers to keep travel hazards in context, Fergus emphasises. So, what if the city or town you’re visiting, unlikely as it may be, is subject to a terrorist attack or you find yourself in the vicinity of one, as was the case for the tens of thousands of visitors to Paris on November 13?
“There is probably not a great deal that an individual tourist can reasonably do,” says Fergus, “other than stay alert to their surroundings and move away from any area where there is any obvious commotion or where first responder agencies seem to be moving toward.”
REALITY CHECK TWO: THERE IS NO SHAME IN ESCAPING AN ATTACK
Fergus says that in the event of being directly victim to a terrorist incident, rather than being in the vicinity of one, the choices you make in the first few minutes will be critical to your survival. He says you should always do “whatever you reasonably can do” to evacuate the scene as quickly as possible.
Indeed, London’s Metropolitan Police has recently released an instructional video, available to the public, on how to best deal with a terrorist incident with its basic advice being not to “play dead” but to flee and/or hide.
Remember, too, it advises, to fully switch off your mobile so as to not attract the attacker’s or attackers’ attention while other experts, such as Britain’s National Counter-Terrorism Office (NACTSO), as reported by The Guardian, recommend shielding behind a solid brick or reinforced wall.
“There will be occasions where finding a bolt-hole, somewhere relatively safe to try and ‘weather the storm’ makes good sense,”” concurs Fergus. “but if in any doubt on that issue then you should proactively seek to flee the area.”
REALITY CHECK THREE: DESPITE EVERYTHING THERE’S NO SAFER TIME TO TRAVEL
Fergus says that, realistically, there is no more secure period to visit a city like Paris than now. As a consequence of the November 13 events, the French and Belgian security and police agencies have conduced scores of raids and made numerous arrests.
He says that the security regime in a place like Paris is now “very intensive” and that “it will absolutely prove a major deterrent” to any potential further terrorist action.
See: 32 great reasons tourists should still visit Paris
It’s important for travellers to remember that while such events are “horrific in the extreme”, their main objective, other than to kill and main, is to create to major media events in order to generate maximum fear, confusion and exposure.
But what of notoriously soft targets for terrorists, such as hotels, airports and railway stations, the kind of places that travellers, like me, must frequent? Even with increased security, the “landside” of airports, as opposed to the “airside” of terminals where the planes are parked, are remarkably unsecure with railway stations even more so.
“The better quality five-star hotels all should have very robust security and emergency management plans in place to protect their guests, staff and corporate reputations,” says Fergus. “After the attacks on the Oberoi and Taj properties in Mumbai [in 2008] this has become the new standard rather than the exception.”
REALITY CHECK FOUR: BE ALERT NOT ALARMED
As someone who travels reasonably regularly, I fully realise that perspective can be a traveller’s best friend, even though I do tend to find myself monitoring the 24-hour news channels more frequently as well as becoming more aware in public places than in the past.
Fergus says that the key to safe and enjoyable travels is to remain alert to your surroundings and not be a “naive or gullible” traveller. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) website, Smart Traveller, is a resource that travellers should consult periodically. It’s also worth registering travel movements with DFAT since, as Fergus points out, the Australian Government can only help you if it knows your whereabouts.
It also wise, in this traveller’s experience. to not rely entirely on social media channels, such as Twitter, in the event of a major incident abroad. As much as the so-called mainstream media is criticised, it’s those outlets, such as the BBC, which are less likely to issue incorrect or unconfirmed information than citizen Tweeters and the like.
REALITY CHECK FIVE: TRAVEL INSURANCE IS THE BEST POLICY
Although most, if not all, travel insurance policies do not cover acts of terrorism, Fergus says it never ceases to surprise him how many travellers fail to take out adequate travel insurance to cover myriad other events, with a worrying number not bothering to do it all.
“If you are travelling to OECD countries a simple travel insurance policy will be more than sufficient,” he says. “However if you are travelling to Third World countries ensure you have a policy that has, as a minimum, a small kidnap and ransom component in it.”
Before you leave, get an instant travel insurance quote from our Traveller Insure tool.
Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media’s national travel editor.
See also: Aftermath: Why you should visit places where bad things have happened See also: The destinations that need us
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