We are only two weeks into the new year and already thousands of people around the world have faced disasters, criminality, political unrest and subsequent travel disruption.
Sudden mudslides swept away homes in California earlier this week while huge swathes of the eastern United States were stunned by a bomb cyclone as the new year arrived. Extreme heat in Australia is melting roads while freak snowfall has trapped thousands of tourists in the Alps.
What further causes of disruption can be expected in the remaining 50 weeks of the year? The following seven issues in particular should be kept in mind and prepared for where relevant.
1. Natural Disaster
This is almost certain to be one of the biggest factors affecting travel in 2018. According to insurance firm Swiss Re natural disasters cost over $300 billion last year and freak weather has already taken its toll in the last 14 days alone. The coming year is likely to see all manner of disastrous events affect global travel.
Hurricane season will begin in the Caribbean in June. Typhoon season normally escalates in the Asia Pacific region at the same time. Flooding and drought are likely to affect many locations at different times of the year. Earthquakes may also strike at any time, with Peru being hit over the weekend and some parts of the world anxiously anticipating an overdue ‘big one’ this year.
Travellers can prepare for the impact of natural disasters by researching their destinations in advance. Avoid higher-risk times of the year, select good-quality accommodation and have contingency plans in place.
You can also see our Disaster Vulnerability Index, which highlights which countries are most at-risk here.
2. Political unrest
Political tensions have also been building in the first two weeks of the year. Demonstrations have broken out in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, as well as Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru and India in recent days. The tone is being set and many countries are likely to experience further outbursts of public anger at various issues this year.
Many people are frustrated. With world economic growth now back at levels not seen since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, we may see a rise in public demands for that growth to be translated into improved job prospects and higher standards of living.
In countries from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East to Asia, a number of incumbent political leaders have also been making attempts to alter the constitution and extend their position in power beyond what could fairly be described as responsible democratic term limits. This will continue to provoke disquiet this year.
Improved communications, connectivity and the ability of people to organise themselves in large numbers mean that demonstrations for causes such as the preservation of democratic values are likely to happen more regularly, and likely with greater effectiveness this year. This means that in many cases these demonstrations will also result in more widespread disruption – aimed at pressuring the relevant authorities into conceding to popular demands. Better connectivity and communication may be a step ahead for civil rights movements but it could nonetheless threaten travel plans and even safety this year.
3. Controversial diplomacy
Certain high-profile figures will likely continue to use their public platform to make provocative statements regarding world politics and society in 2018. These statements, such as Donald Trump’s stance on migration, criticism of certain countries or recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, could spark further backlashes against US citizens in various arenas. The results could range from discrimination or verbal abuse against US travellers to even more widespread demonstrations, attacks and the withdrawal of US nationals from at-risk areas.
The rhetoric and policies could also catalyse visa-wars, limiting the ability of all sorts of passport-holders from travelling to different parts of the world. Middle Eastern or South Asian nationals may face further difficulties travelling to the US, and some states might respond by limiting access to US travellers, having a knock-on impact on those visiting family, investing in business or taking part in valuable humanitarian work, for example.
The internet is proving very difficult to govern and this is going to increasingly affect travel. Threats to information security are only going increase this year.
Travel increasingly involves online processes, such as the booking of flights and accommodation, and these processes will remain vulnerable to online criminality such as phishing scams and fraud, which could affect thousands of travellers on an individual basis this year.
On a broader and perhaps more worrying scale, we could see more high profile cyber attacks this year targeting critical travel-related infrastructure. Major attacks to date have focussed on state-owned companies, energy providers and even the British National Health Service. Future attacks could target airlines, travel agencies, hotel chains and even critical transport infrastructure such as railways, harbours and airports, with a knock-on effect on countless journeys. The authorities will have to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in online criminality but many will fall short and numerous vulnerabilities will remain exposed to online exploitation.
5. Radical Islamist terrorism
Islamic State, Daesh, ISIL or whatever incarnation it calls itself or is labelled by others, was militarily defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria last year. However, sympathisers, ranging from radicalised individuals working alone to established groups in locations around the world still have the intent to pursue its ideology. Many of these groups and individuals also have the capability to wreak havoc for travellers around the world.
We can expect more random knife, vehicle, gun and bomb attacks against crowds of civilians in the West. We can expect ongoing clashes with militant groups in places like Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan. We may also face terrorist attacks on airports, planes, trains, ferries and buses as has occurred in the recent past.
Statistically, however, this might not be the biggest risk to fret over. People are expected to make more than a billion international journeys in 2018. The statistical likelihood that yours will be one of the ones hit by a terrorist attack is vanishingly small. It’s therefore not worth giving these radicals the satisfaction of achieving one of their aims: fear.
Otherwise, be prepared to respond to suspicious activity or incidents at short notice. In at-risk areas such as crowded streets, markets or venues where large numbers of people gather, be aware of your surroundings and the location of your nearest exits at all times. If you get caught up in an incident, take the official advice to run away from the danger, take shelter and hide before notifying the authorities or loved ones.
The past 15 years have seen sporadic disease outbreaks affecting global travel. Be it SARS, Ebola, Avian Flu or the Zika virus, the impacts of these events have varied in terms of ferocity, targeting and geographic specificity, dependent on the nature of the disease itself, which can be hard to predict. If 2018 sees another outbreak, the nature of the pathogen will part determine the impact it has on local, regional and global travel.
The responsiveness of the local authorities and international organisations may also determine the impact, both in terms of victims as well as any subsequent quarantine, border-closures or worse. Lessons have certainly been learnt from previous outbreaks, but border controls and healthcare systems are still vulnerable and unprepared in many parts of the world. In the event of any major outbreaks occurring this year, flights may be grounded, borders may be sealed and travel on a local, national, regional and even intercontinental level may all be affected.
Finally, we list one of the most overlooked but deadly risk of all: road traffic accident (RTA). Worldwide, vehicle accidents are likely to cause well over a million fatalities this year. It’s often the biggest killer for travellers but one that people often forget about when travelling overseas.
Poor road surfaces, aggressive or erratic local driving practises and sub-standard vehicle maintenance procedures all increase the risk of traffic accident. Insufficient roadside assistance and emergency services also lower the survival rate of victims in the event that an accident occurs. It can be bad enough having to deal with chaotic local driving practises, but in the event of a crash sometimes the biggest killer is simply the fact that the local hospitals cannot help the victims.
Usually the best advice is to use good vehicles, drive defensively, avoid driving at night and even consider hiring a reliable local driver.
You can also find out more about local driving conditions by registering with our site and browsing the ‘Transport and Infrastructure’ section of our country reports.
You can also browse the ‘What the Starlings Say’ tab where users have shared their experiences on each country/territory. One of the best ways to mitigate all of these risks is to share relevant advice and warnings with fellow travellers, which is just one of the many reasons to join our flock.
Otherwise, from everyone at Starling Safety, we hope you have a good – and safe – 2018.