Travel safety continues to improve around the world but we still need to stay aware of the changing associated risks.

2019 looks set to be another game-changer. Expect emerging dynamics, new technology but also depressingly familiar political risks.

Read on to find out how nationalism, disease and technology could all disrupt your plans in the year ahead. There’s also a roundup of global election trends to look out for at the end of the article. Make sure you don’t miss it!

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Let’s start with the basics of travel safety – the method of actual travel.

Cars

I don’t like to labour point but every year I say the same thing. Travellers are more likely to die on the road than anywhere else.

Terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes and the zika virus have all grabbed headlines over the past decade. Nonetheless, cars killed over 1.3 million people last year alone.

2019 will be no different.

In the first few DAYS of this year, vehicle accidents killed more people around the world than Islamist terrorists in the past five years.

So buckle up. Drive sensibly. Drive defensively when needed. Maintain your vehicle properly. Choose reliable drivers.

Take general care around roadsides as well. A huge proportion of those killed on the road are pedestrians. It’s not just those at the wheel who need to take heed.

Travel sickness

The second most reliable headache to hit travellers is illness.

Healthcare provision continues to improve around the world. Nonetheless, there is no excuse for not taking sensible precautions before any trip.

Research your location to find out about any medical concerns. There are many things to help minimise the risk. This can range from basic hygiene practises to oral medication and vaccinations.

Read our reports

Remember that Starling Safety has information on diseases and recommended vaccinations on every country. This is to help you work out what you need before you plan a trip. Make sure to read up on the reports before you go anywhere.

Please also tell other travellers about your experiences when you’ve come back from a country. Maybe you found the pharmacies difficult to find, or you can recommend a good hospital. It’s all helpful.

Seek advice

You should also consider speaking to a medical practitioner before any journey. This is especially the case if you think you need to arrange vaccinations or other treatments. Bear in mnd that this sort of thing can take several weeks to organise. It’s not something you want to the last minute.

Deadly Outbreaks

Staying on the theme of illness, it might be time to start worrying about the eastern DR Congo.

The country is usually a cause for concern for some reason or another (such as the latest elections – see below).

However, right now, the second largest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history is gripping the east of the country. As it spreads, it’s going to become more of an international concern.

In 2014 an unprecedented Ebola outbreak hit West Africa. It swept up Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leona particularly badly – countries which had never witnessed the virus before.

The disease spread quickly, partly because no-one was prepared. However, it also spread because of the infrastructure in this part of Africa. Essentially it is better developed than in the usual Ebola hotspots of the Congolese jungles.

The east of DR Congo remains isolated, under-developed and difficult to get around today. For now, this helps contain any outbreaks.

However, the area has suffered with instability and violence for years.

Militants are deliberately targeting aid workers and communities aren’t getting the support they need to deal with the outbreak.

Long term alarm

Furthermore, even if experts tackle the current outbreak, the disease will likely return again in the future.

Our concern is that future outbreaks could be far more serious for the whole world.

Foreign governments and multinational companies are racing to build roads into the mineral-rich interior of central Africa.

This improved infrastructure will increase human mobility. However, this in turn will make it easier for future Ebola outbreaks to spread. This will threaten not just the region, but the wider world.

Governments need to prepare for this eventuality now, because when it happens, it will do so quickly.

Aviation safety

Let’s return to transportation-related travel risks. We can happily report that flight safety continues to improve round the world.

Nonetheless, at least 15 airliners crashed last year, killing over 550 people. This is worse than 2017 but trends overall are still far more positive than this time a decade ago.

As ever, accidents tend to affect airlines with poorer finances and in countries with weaker safety measures. For example, in Iran a cargo plane has also already crashed this year.

To help mitigate the risk, it remains advisable to use reliable airlines as far as possible. Take particular care when using smaller firms in developing countries.

More drone disruption

A growing headache for the aviation sector is disruption caused by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Thousands of people faced travel misery in December as drone sightings shut down Gatwick airport during its busiest week of the year.

There was shock at how such a small device could cause so much mayhem. Nonetheless, experts have been warning for years that drones pose a significant risk to flight safety.


Why the chaos?

If a drone collided with an airliner the chances are that nothing would happen. However, there is a small possibility a device could crack the cockpit windscreen. It’s also conceivable it could get sucked into an engine – potentially causing a mass-casualty catastrophe.

It’s no surprise then, that pilots are unwilling to take the risk.

Powerless

The problem is that the authorities are limited in what they can do to prevent further incursions.

The use of brute force such as sniper fire appears impractical. It’s also potentially hazardous.

Airport controllers could use anti-drone jamming frequencies, but there are concerns these could interfere with aircraft communications.

Experts think this could be avoided. Nonetheless, determined drone users could still theoretically hack their own devices to evade even sophisticated jamming techniques.

A drone registration process, triangulation efforts and remote control of devices by the authorities through mandatory apps could also work. However, these measures would only be applicable in jurisdictions with the capability of enforcing such measures. It wouldn’t be a workable solution in every airport around the world.

Any measures will also take time to implement. Furthermore, with any technical solutions, determined drone users could still theoretically work around the defences.

Evolving Threat

Until now, the drone-using community has actually been very conscientious and self-regulating. Chatter on specialist forums has focussed extensively on the need for good practises and the merits of social responsibility.

The overwhelming majority of civilian drone users are specifically interested in technology and the ever-improving workings of aviation. They are extremely opposed to causing any sort of disruption.

Nonetheless, the good intentions of the majority cannot be relied upon alone as a means of risk mitigation.

The Gatwick debacle has demonstrated how easily an individual could create a high-profile disturbance with relatively few resources.

Who would do such a thing?

There have been concerns for a long time that radical Islamist groups might try to bring down a passenger airliner with a drone. However, in reality this would be difficult.

Nonetheless, Yemeni rebels recently experimented with rudimentary drone attacks. Various other groups may also attempt more radical, disruptive and even deadly drone innovations this year.

Otherwise, we might see a rise in drone disruption attempts by climate activists, anti-globalists or even those simply opposed to airport expansion. They won’t want to bring down an airliner, just cause chaos in order to make a political statement.

As such, further incidents are likely to take place, not just in the UK, but potentially affecting airports all over the world.

Those responsible for security at Zürich airport should take the issue particularly seriously. The World Economic Forum conference in Davos will be taking place later in January. The high profile event would be a very attractive target for some.

The same applies for Kansai Airport ahead of the G20 summit in Osaka in June and Biarrtiz Airport ahead of the G7 summit in August.

Tech comparisons

We can draw a very similar parallel with the world of cyber security.

Organisations are continually having to improve their defences to counteract evolving threats. The hackers can be individuals or malicious organisations. They can even be state institutions attempting to sabotage commercial and diplomatic rivals around the world.

Tech Threats

It is a race; one that involves mobilising the most talented experts into either defending online assets – or attacking them.

The cyber-security landscape will continue to broaden significantly in 2019.

There might not be any major developments in the tactics or impact. However, we increasingly use the internet for business, communication and essential processes. This means that there will be more opportunities and vulnerabilities associated with cyber-warfare in the year ahead.

Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if you’re a small firm or a multimillion-dollar corporation – you all face the risk.

Falling crime

Sometimes it feels like crime rates are rising.

Certainly, readers in London will have noticed a rise in reported knife crime in the city.

However, crime rates are generally falling around the world – especially in higher income economies.

Criminality tends to decrease when standards of living rise. This has been a constant trend in most parts of the world for decades.

Furthermore, as societies become increasingly cashless there is simply less opportunity for petty criminals to rob their victims.

However, as our lifestyles transcend more into the digital world, our online transactions and data will become increasingly vulnerable to the tech threats mentioned above. Indeed our data might become the most valuable commodity of all and a prize worth fighting for by many malevolent individuals.

Persistent hotspots

In terms of physical crime around the world, certain hotspots remain at risk.

Areas undergoing political turmoil are usually a concern. These situations can push people into desperation, forcing some to turn to crime. The institutions responsible for law and order are also often too overwhelmed to try and stop petty crime.

Areas with high levels of poverty, wealth inequality, corruption and underfunded police forces tend to suffer as well.

This affects cities across Latin America. It also affects many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Otherwise, fore safety’s sake, travellers should consider shady backstreets in urban areas around the world as areas of potentially higher risk. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Barcelona or Bogotá, don’t give criminals the opportunity.

What to do

Familiarise yourself with your destination. Avoid potential crime spots. Know how to get back to your accommodation, including at night.

Try not to display your belongings or anything that could make you appear wealthy, including your wallet, jewellery, passport, phone or other gadgets.

Bear in mind that some items you consider to be ordinary could appear extremely valuable to people in some parts of the world.

Depending on the location, it might be advisable to travel in pairs or in a group. It might also be better to travel by car rather than walking – especially at night.

In general, use your gut instincts. Be prepared to avoid situations, places or people that seem suspicious, odd or wrong in some way.

Be sure to read the relevant Starling Safety reports before you go.

And don’t forget to tell us about the place when you get back!

Political risk

It’s not just crime, technology and diseases to look out for in 2019.

Some of the biggest sources of disruption will come from elected officials.

Concerningly, some of the most destabilising ripples are being caused by the world’s most evolved democracies. The most established institutions are being rocked and even the so-called leader of the free world is causing major waves.

Let’s get Brexit out of the way

Regardless of which side you support, the process of Britain leaving the European Union is out of control. There is a lack of clarity on how things will proceed and the year ahead will be anything but orderly.

Uncertainty continues to spook investors and cause business-owners concern on both sides of the Channel. At the same time, economic growth is also forecast to slow in the Eurozone. We are in worrying times.

In the coming weeks Westminster will continue to debate the merits of Theresa May’s deal. The prime minister is leaving as little room for any alternatives as possible. However, amid this brinkmanship there is also growing support for a second referendum.

The proposal is being derided by some as a waste of time. Others, including the prime minister, have branded it a betrayal of democratic principles.

Nonetheless, a second referendum, like the poll in 2016, would be advisory in nature, not politically binding. The cost of holding it would be dwarfed by the economic losses sustained in a no deal departure from one of the world’s largest trading blocs.

Time is running out

Whatever happens, the next few weeks are going to be frantic. They are also going to be definitive for Britain’s economy and political direction for years to come.

In the event that Britain leaves the EU, it will have a significant impact on travel, essentially ending years of free movement.

Nonetheless, millions of Europeans will continue to visit the UK. Similarly, millions of Brits will continue to visit Europe.

Sheer logistics and economic pressures mean that the British masses will not suddenly shift their holiday preferences from Greece to Goa, Spain to Sri Lanka or France to Fiji in some re-pivot back to the Commonwealth.

Nonetheless, negotiations will still have to take place over a plethora of issues, ranging from reciprocal medical treatment, travel insurance, aviation, ferries and various restrictions – and that’s just for standard holidays.

Long-term residents on both sides of the Channel have far more at stake. They will be watching closely over the coming months to see how the crisis develops.

Yes – it is a crisis

A crisis can be defined as a situation where control has been lost and there is a risk of harm to people, property and/or profit. The Brexit process has brought the UK well into this bracket.

The country needs leadership, reform and a swift and credible handling of relations with the EU. Unfortunately, this is never going to happen in time for the 29th March deadline.

Alternatively, the process could be delayed, or, as mentioned above, there could be a re-run of the referendum.

However, if the result was different the second time around and Britain remained in the EU, it would not signal a cessation of political debate.

The stark existential arguments of the last few years have highlighted a myriad of rifts and failings, as well as major social divides. Bridges will need to be built, grievances will need to be addressed and serious questions will need to be asked over the standards and procedures of parliament.

Britain is not alone

It’s not just the political establishment in Westminster that needs a review. It’s also not just the British electorate debating the merits of remaining in the European Union.

Governments across the continent are facing waves of popular discontent. Most are projecting their frustrations at their respective governments but many are channelling their discontent towards the EU as well.

People are unhappy and they are expressing it via polls and public protests.

Yellow Vests

Discontent has been most evident in France – a country no stranger to civil unrest.

The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement has morphed from an unled anti-fuel price protest into a widespread tide of anti-government grievances.

The protestors are calling for a revision of the country’s taxation system, a rise in the minimum wage and other moves to ease difficulties for those struggling with the country’s rising cost of living.

Almost spontaneously, this unmanaged group created a symbolic brand, laid-out its causes and gained a huge amount of public support. It is thought to have the backing of almost three-quarters of the French population.

Allies or rivals?

Longer-established anti-government groups and protest movements around Europe (including those to the right) are probably viewing developments with envy. Many will seek to capitalise on the mood and emulate the tactics of the movement.

They will have varying degrees of success.

Nonetheless, people around Europe will have several grievances in common with les gilets jaunes.

Common ground

Standards of living are not rising fast enough. For many, wages are not matching the cost of living either.

Austerity has dragged on for years. For many ordinary people it doesn’t appear to have achieved anything tangible. It doesn’t look set improve their lives in the long-term either.

In some circumstances, like France, this has united many people. In other countries, the mood is more likely to polarise society.

The combination of identity politics with general frustration will stoke rising xenophobia as well as increased demands for secession across the continent. It will also likely provoke disruptive and even potentially violent demonstrations in city centres from Barcelona to Budapest.

Another pivotal year for Greece

In Athens, the governing Syriza alliance is likely to be punished in this year’s general election in Greece. Voters have faced more austerity here than anywhere else on the continent. It should come as no surprise if the public therefore gravitates towards more radical anti-austerity parties at the ballot box that talk about ending fiscal frugality.

The debate over renaming the neighbouring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia could also stoke nationalist disquiet as well, adding more fuel to the flames of Greek nationalist rhetoric.

Indeed, nationalism is becoming more of an issue across western Europe – with dire consequences for social cohesion.

Nationalist political parties have won more than 20% of the latest votes in Austria, Switzerland and Denmark and more than 10% in Hungary, Finland, Sweden, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Many of these parties pursue strong anti-migrant policies and advocate distancing themselves from international organisations such as the European Union.

Reversing nationalism

Somewhat reassuringly, however, is a rising trend of discontent with nationalist governments that have been in power for some time.

Ruling with popular, identity-based support for several years, these governments are now facing increased scrutiny from their respective electorates. Many are disappointed that their national dreams have not been translated into better standards of living.

Public failings by nationalist governments may gradually start to turn the tide against the notion that identity-based governance creates better opportunities.

More identity politics – for now

For the foreseeable future, however, identity politics are set to continue dominating current affairs.

In the United States President Trump was elected on a campaign designed to elicit an identity-based response.

There is a possibility that he won’t see out a full term, but his opponents shouldn’t start celebrating.

For a start, not only could he survive any potential impeachment efforts, he could even win a second term.

A failed attempt to indict the president could actually galvanise his support base and even help in his re-election bid.

Global consequences

If Trump is actually removed from power the hawkish stance of the Republican Party will not be tempered. His replacement might dial down the current policy unpredictability but it won’t soften the country’s hard line on situations that could be improved with mediation (such as Iran).

Furthermore, much of the damage to US foreign policy has already been done or is underway. Some of the most experienced advisors on foreign policy matters in Washington have been unceremoniously forced out of their positions in the past two years.

The impact of this cull in talent will be felt for a long time to come.

Trading Tactics

An even more concerning consequence of current US political discourse is something reminiscent of the 1930s.

Trade barriers have been tried before as a means of protecting a nation’s economic interests. However, it has been proven time and time again that they do not work.

Undeterred by the lessons of history, Donald Trump has blundered forwards with his ‘America First’ ideology, imposing tariffs on foreign suppliers in a high-profile attempt to try and appease his electoral support base.

Unfortunately, they are precisely the demographic set to suffer from these policies in the long-term.

In the shorter-term, however, the negative impacts are already set to be felt in 2019.

China is responding to the tariffs with measured, reactive but nonetheless damaging counter-restrictions. Both economies will suffer but China will prevail.

Chinese ascent

Chinese growth will slow again in 2019, but this is in-keeping with the general maturation of its economy.

A scary crisis is not likely in the Chinese market this year or any time soon. The government has more than enough fiscal mechanisms at its disposal to keep the economy on track, despite any potential for international instability.

Furthermore, China is actively pursuing greater trade freedoms in most parts of the world. Beijing is seeking more partnerships, more deals and more co-operation. It will increasingly be seen as a big, stable and reliable partner in world affairs, not least at a time when global faith in the US is being shaken.

And of course, elsewhere in the world of restricted trade, we can’t forget Britain, which is essentially creating its own trade barriers by voting to leave one of the world’s largest trading blocs.

Split society

Returning to the damage being done in the US, there are also concerns over the country’s domestic stability.

Current Republican rhetoric, and the Democratic party’s response, leaves little scope for soothing the stark polarisation of American society that has been taking place in recent years.

With Congress divided and brinkmanship causing the longest government shutdown in history, it’s going to be very difficult for the US government to pass a raft of much needed legislation.

This will likely be frustrating for both businesses, civil rights lobbyists and political supporters on both sides of the divide.

This divide will only become wider and more antagonistic in the year ahead.

These impasses will bring more anger, frustration and the language of confrontation into America’s politics. Expect more criticism, more arguments and more aggression, with much of it designed to elicit a strong emotional response from the electorate.

Angry America

As such, be prepared for more demonstrations with the potential for violence.

One horrible side-effect to also look out for will be growing radicalisation of political supporters.

Well-armed individuals across the country may increasingly decide to take matters into their own hands, using violence as a means of promoting their agendas and intimidating those they feel opposed to.

Consequently, 2019 will likely be a year of more mass shootings, with a growing number based on political motivations.

School shootings will remain a grim reality, but there will now also be an increased risk to media outlets, places of worship and community centres – especially anything deemed to be ‘un-American’ (or more accurately, non-white, non-Christian or non-US-born).

Self-sabotage

Much like Brexit, the longer-term issue is not the result of one vote, or the struggle to contain the damage caused by it.

Instead, it is addressing the social trends which prompted enough of an electorate to vote for something so self-destructive.

In most cases, this will boil down to basic things like employment, earnings, standards of living and access to care.

However, with increased barriers to migration and global trade, these are precisely the sorts of areas set to suffer in countries around the world this year.

Global nationalism

Another comparable case to examine is Brazil.

Newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro is riding a populist wave into dangerous waters for civil liberties and the environment.

His right-wing, nationalist agenda poses a threat to indigenous Brazilians, the LGBTQ+ community and even the Amazonian rainforest.

Despite taking what is clearly a step back for progressive social values, he has the backing of the country’s powerful business lobby, as well as many Brazilians frustrated with the perennial corruption of successive left-wing governments. As such, he faces far fewer threats to his power base than Trump – for now.

However, his policies are almost certain to cause long-term harm to the country.

It’s not just the Americas

In terms of nationalism, Russia has been leading the way for several years. Indeed, Moscow seems keen not just on fostering a domestic agenda of nationalism, it is actively promoting the ideology’s divisive properties in numerous international spheres as well.

It lends money to right-wing European parties (such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front/Rally party) and gives plentiful airtime to controversial nationalist politicians such as Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders.

There is, of course, also growing evidence of a widespread campaign of influence in the US presidential elections in 2016, as well as countless other Western polls in recent years.

The activation of identity politics looks like a very effective tool in weakening the unity of Russia’s NATO opponents so expect more of the same in the year ahead.

Pacific patriotism

The Chinese Communist Party is also activating nationalist sentiment.

Most recently, Beijing reaffirmed its warning that it will never stop seeking reunification with Taiwan.

This has prompted further concerns for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. The party had already been weakened by a heavy defeat in November’s local elections and the outlook now looks increasingly shaky.

China is unlikely to invade Taiwan any time soon, but its strong rhetoric and diplomatic and economic pressure will continue contributing to instability in Taiwanese politics in the year ahead.

Bounding over barriers

From Trump’s wall with Mexico, to the Great Wall of China, there will usually be means of overcoming a barrier. The same applies to trade.

There appears little hope for any lifting of sanctions on Iran this year. We could see a resumption of peace talks with North Korea too, but don’t expect any major opening of the economy.

For a start, Kim Jong-un is losing patience with an apparent lack of peace talk progress and is returning to more familiar hostile rhetoric, raising concerns over tensions and potential conflict on the Korean peninsula again.

This is almost certainly sabre-rattling rather than any credible threat to peace, but we still remain a long way from North Korea ever becoming integrated into the global order.

Instead, however, both Pyongyang and Tehran, as well as some of their current and potential future trading partners may increasingly seek to trade alone lines that circumnavigate the world financial order this year.

For example, expect to see more developments related to cryptocurrency, international advancement of fintech, and innovative ways to do banking.

In the overwhelming majority of cases this innovation will be positive for society, but as ever, there will always be attempts to use the latest tools to evade international law.

Easing sanctions

Finally, some good news from the world of trade barriers.

We could see a gradual lifting of sanctions on Qatar this year.

Saudi pressure

Saudi Arabia is likely to face growing pressure to moderate its bombastic foreign policy in 2019.

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and ongoing conflict in Yemen will force Western governments to apply more pressure on the country.

Some of this pressure will be explicit, but more subtle channels will also likely be used as well. Western partners will want Saudi Arabia to moderate its stance, but they won’t want to upset a regional ally and trading partner.

There is still speculation on whether the royal family will allow Mohammed bin Salman to remain in charge. Whisperings behind closed doors will always be difficult to analyse but if nothing else, the country will have to tone down some of its more aggressive activities.

For instance, there will be more calls for Riyadh to ease its embargo on Doha, not just from the West, but from other Gulf partners (such as the business lobby in Dubai) as well.

Of course, Qatar could survive the current rift for years, but it is harmful to the country’s growth nonetheless. It would also prove a public relations embarrassment if the situation continued into the run-up to the 2022 World Cup.

The Saudi-led restrictions currently apply to regional airspace, shipping, trade in general as well as the movement of people so any easing will have a major boost for the economy, as well as investor confidence in the energy-rich city state.

High energy risks

Energy politics are playing out elsewhere in the wider region.

The eastern Mediterranean could see tensions this year over maritime demarcation rights, exacerbated by major oil and gas fields under development.

Greece and Cyprus face contention with Turkey while Israel and Lebanon, lacking official diplomatic channels, could also engage in a face-off over similar issues, particularly related to the Leviathan field.

However, when looking at these dynamics from a historical angle, it would be more unusual if these countries weren’t experiencing tensions with one another.

It therefore likely isn’t cause for any serious alarm – for now at least.

Radical Islamism

The Middle East has faced a significant slowdown in radical Islamist terrorist attacks in the past year. This is welcome news.

Europe had also faced a tide of radical violence in recent years, with terrorists killing hundreds of civilians in Paris, London and a range of other towns and cities.

This trend also appears to have slowed.

The defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria combined with better preparation and co-operation between the security forces of European countries appears to have reduced the intensity of radical campaigns. The threat has certainly not been eradicated, but it has been reduced.

However, the underlying ideology has not been defeated. Radical sympathisers will continue to plot attacks against governments and civilians.

Contagion

Furthermore, while radical groups have faced a beating in the Middle East and successful clampdowns in Europe, they are still festering in parts of the world with poor governance and insecurity.

Two hotspots to watch at present include North Africa (extending across the Sahara and into the Sahel) and Central Asia. Here, radical groups continue to evade the authorities and more attacks are likely in the year ahead.

This poses a concern from the Sahel of northern Nigeria to the mountains of the Caucasus. Keep an eye out for Yemen, Egypt and Somalia as well, where affiliated groups are far from being defeated.

Ultimately, this threat will not be defeated with weapons. It will be defeated with intellectual discourse, community engagement and socio-economic development. However, the campaign will be long.

Global election watch

Some of the biggest democracies in the world will hold elections this year. While in many cases we expect the current leaders to secure another term in power, there are still some wild-cards to keep an eye on.

Over a billion people will vote around Asia.

Thailand

One of the potentially positive cases will be Thailand, where polls will mark the return to civilian rule after five years of military leadership.

Initially scheduled for February, the vote was pushed back to March.

The junta has rewritten the national constitution to try and limit some of the more contentious elements of the country’s political system.

However, the new charter controversially gives the military significant political influence and does not address the underlying causes of the unrest that have troubled the country for years.

As such, the tourist-orientated economy could be shaken by a return to street protests in the coming years.

Afghanistan

While instability is a potential concern for Bangkok, it is a persistent reality for Kabul.

Afghanistan was due to hold presidential elections in April but these have already been delayed until July.

Essentially though, it doesn’t matter who wins. It doesn’t even matter who takes part.

Collapse

The stabilisation programme and democratic experiment in Afghanistan has failed.

The West lost the war in this country over a decade ago.

There are soldiers now eligible to fight in the country who weren’t even born when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centre towers in New York in 2001.

The stream of returning body bags from the country has counted for little while the civilian cost stands only as a testament to hopeless horror.

The Taliban continues to gain strength, de facto governing much of the country, especially at night.

Only Kabul stands apart, but barely at that.

There are some commentators, like Eric Prince, calling for the privatisation of Afghan security. Given the bleak record left by his company Blackwater in Iraq, there is little optimism surrounding his proposal.

The only supporters seem to be those who would profit from such as solution, regardless of the costs to local governance, international credibility and Afghan civilian livelihoods.

The Great Game

Otherwise, regional countries are playing a longer game, with strategic relationships being built in different parts of Afghanistan by China, Russia and Iran for example.

This may displease the Western states that have invested so much in the war, but in reality these non-aligned partners might achieve greater success in stabilising the country.

According to Andrew Kain, the CEO of AK&P LLP and a special forces veteran with long experience in the country, “Afghanistan will never be a stable country in its current manifestation.”

“It is an artificial construct that never took into account the ethnic and cultural realities on the ground. It will never be governable until the colonial Durand line is redrawn, potentially creating new states in the region such as Pashtunistan or Baluchistan.”

However, there is little international support for such a radical solution – for now.

India

In contrast to the gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, India, the biggest democratic electorate in the world will take to the polls in April. Hundreds of millions of Indians will vote for members of the People’s Assembly.

Despite setbacks in recent state elections, the BJP party led by Narendra Modi looks set to win, which will spell policy continuity, ongoing economic growth and the slow but steady lifting of poverty levels.

However, identity politics remain at the forefront. Expect more unrest over religious and caste sensitivities, as well as debates over the role of women in society. There will also remain the risk of unrest by elements who feel disenfranchised by society’s wealth gap and left behind in the national drive for modernisation.

Indonesia

Millions of people will also vote in April in Indonesia, with a repeat of the 2014 elections pitting incumbent president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo against former military and self-styled strongman Prabowo Subianto.

A re-election of Jokowi looks most likely for now, which would spell broad policy and economic stability, as well as modest growth.

A win for Prabowo, on the other hand, might not signal major change, but he has styled himself in the mould of former dictator Suharto and could enact more radical and destabilising populist policies, adding to longer-term concerns for the country.

Nigeria

Moving over to Africa, and another of the world’s great electorates – Nigeria – will vote in contentious elections in February.

Worryingly, Nigerians are being presented with some fairly uninspiring candidates. The two frontrunners have governed the country in the past and have suffered extensive accusations of corruption, nepotism and inefficiency.

At the same time, the country’s youth population is expanding much faster than the economy. The next leader will likely be unable to diversify the economy away from oil into much-needed job-creating sectors.

Consequently, many are concerned that public frustration is going to rise. Amid widespread graft and poor governance, this anger is likely going to be directed at the state, so look out for the rising risk of civil unrest in Nigerian urban areas in the electoral term to come.

South Africa

Cyril Ramaphosa and the African National Congress are likely to win South Africa‘s elections in May. However, the country’s significant wealth gap is not being tackled fast enough. This in turn is fuelling the fire of radical economic arguments such as those of populist figure Julius Malema.

Without sustained reform, investment in public services and far-reaching job creation the country will suffer a greater risk of unrest and crime in the future. This in turn will deter more much-needed foreign direct investment.

However, as a reliable technocrat, Ramaphosa looks like the most credible leader for working towards these goals.

Senegal

Senegal is also voting in presidential elections in February. We expect incumbent Macky Sall to win again after his party performed well in last year’s legislative elections.

This should be positive for policy continuity and ongoing gradual improvements in the country’s governance, infrastructure and economy.

Malawi

When Malawi holds general elections in May it is likely going to be tightly contested with plenty of mudslinging between participants.

The winner will face similar issues of underdevelopment, poverty, poor infrastructure and an agricultural-dependent economy susceptible to potentially disruptive weather which could trouble much of the world in 2019.

Mozambique

Mozambique is currently scheduled to hold general elections in October.

FRELIMO leader Filipe Nyusi is expected to prevail, but it could be a very tight race. Voters are increasingly supporting the opposition RENAMO party.

Whoever wins will have the task of overseeing ongoing development in the country. Key areas include the emerging energy sector, enhancement of the poor business climate and development of integrated infrastructure. The winning party will also face ongoing issues such as weak governance and looming problems with political violence, especially in the north.

Algeria

In the Arab world, President Bouteflika is almost completely guaranteed to win presidential elections scheduled for Algeria in April.

This will almost certainly be the aged leader’s last term. However, whether he is president or not, the reins of power will stay firmly in the hands of ‘le pouvoir’. These are the behind-the-scenes influencers of high politics in the country. They will oversee any future transition of governance, much to the reassurance of investors, but to the chagrin of civil liberties campaigners.

Edit: the above prediction about Bouteflika looks set to be incorrect. Nonetheless, the prediction on ‘le pouvoir’ looks set to remain true.

Tunisia

The birthplace of the Arab Spring is also holding elections at the end of the year.

However, Tunisia is unlikely to see any breakthrough in major reform. The country’s politicians remain deadlocked in an almost existential national debate pitting secularists against Islamists.

Unless there are any major shake ups in the coming months the next few years will remain characterised by this ongoing stalemate.

The maintenance of overall security will be critical, regardless of who governs.

If political violence scares away the risk-averse tourist sector, it will be another terrible setback for the economy. This will cause job-cuts and create more public frustration. This, in turn, could provoke more civil unrest in the coming years, essentially forcing the country into a vicious circle.

El Salvador

The Western hemisphere is also holding some interesting elections this year.

In February, the ruling FMLN in El Salvador will have to work hard if Hugo Martínez is to win the presidential election after his party lost heavily in local Salvadorian polls last year.

The alternative will likely be a centre-right candidate with a run-off poll expected in March if the first round is too close to call – which it might be.

Cuba

One of the few remaining leftist states in the Americas, Cuba will hold a referendum in February covering constitutional issues such as presidential term limits, property ownership, anti-discrimination laws and same-sex marriage.

At a time when major governments in the region appear to be turning more radical, Havana is gradually becoming more progressive.

The country will continue to gain recognition as a travel destination although not before a significant détente with the US. Needless to say, this isn’t likely under the current administration in Washington.

Argentina

Argentina faces a tough election in October. Current President Macri will have to fight hard to stay in power.

His pragmatic economic measures have helped stabilise the economy but improvements in standards of living among ordinary Argentinians are taking too long to materialise.

His ongoing cooperation with the widely mistrusted IMF will also hold back his chances significantly.

Much will depend on economic performance in the first half of the year, which is far from guaranteed.

More populism

If he is defeated the next leader will likely be a leftist populist. Such a candidate would likely scare off investors and undo the economic progress of recent years.

This might provide temporary relief to some elements of the electorate but it will merely delay the necessary reform needed to return the country to the status of a major world economy.

There is even the potential for former radical leader Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returning to power although her attempts could be derailed by a current corruption investigation against her.

Bolivia

The election in Bolivia looks less volatile. Long-term president Evo Morales has seen his support gradually wane over recent years but he is still likely to win again when the country goes to the polls in October.

Elsewhere in the Americas

Panama, Guatemala and Uruguay are also holding elections this year.

The Panamanian poll is too close to predict. Guatemala has been experiencing constitutional unrest and is likely to face more in the coming months. Uruguay’s polls look sedate in comparison. The parties haven’t even selected their political candidates. However, voters could join a regional trend of sliding to the right of the political spectrum.

Back to Europe

The continent is holding several elections in the coming year. We’ve already mentioned Greece, while the European Union itself holds parliamentary elections in May.

Finland, Estonia, Slovakia, (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia and Lithuania will also hold votes this year, while the United Kingdom could have one, or even two…

Ukraine

Perhaps the most sensitive to take place, however, will be on Russia’s doorstep: Ukraine.

The Ukrainian electorate is apathetic and even hostile towards most of the potential candidates. Many people want major change after years of upheaval, corruption and broken promises.

The 31st March poll is not likely to be decisive, so expect a run-off on the 21st April.

Potential winners

The most likely winner will be an anti-Russian candidate, potentially former leader Yulia Tymoshenko or current president Petro Poroshenko.

Tymoshenko could bring a deterioration in relations with international creditors while Poroshenko would likely maintain gradual reform and ongoing relationship building with international partners.

Either way, Russia will likely attempt to intervene to try and influence strategic developments taking place on its doorstep. Expect cyber-attacks, online misinformation aimed at voters and the funding of favoured candidates.

There will also be the potential for further military action by Russian (or pro-Russian) forces. Of particular concern will be territory around Crimea, such as the North Crimean Canal which pro-Moscow forces might want to secure (as it supplies fresh water for Crimean agriculture). The Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov might also see violent flareups while fighting may intensify around the Donbass region as well.

Turning up the heat

Also set to make a prominent appearance this year will be the critical Russia-Ukraine gas transit agreement.

This controversial arrangement accounts for over 3% of Ukraine’s GDP and will expire on the 31st December.

The two sides could agree a temporary extension, perhaps for a year.

Nonetheless, Moscow will use the issue to pressure Kiev into compliance over other areas.  This could include acquiescence on Russia’s territorial influence for example.

Whoever Ukraine selects as president on 2019, they will face significant pressure.

Developments elsewhere

Further elections we don’t have time to go over are taking place in numerous other countries this year, including Micronesia, Panama, Malawi, Botswana, Australia and Israel so keep an eye out for developments, as well as further updates on Starling Safety.

Residual risks

There are some countries which won’t hold elections in 2019 but will face electoral tensions either related to polls due in 2020 or spilling over from polls held in 2018.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh held controversial elections in December 2018 with long-standing politician and leader of the opposition Zia Khaleda detained in jail and unable to stand during the proceedings.

Her supporters regard the result as illegitimate and will continue engaging in unrest and violence in the year ahead to try and pressure the government into holding a re-run.

DR Congo

The December election in the DR Congo was supposed to mark the first ever democratic transfer of power in the country but there have been widespread claims that the result was rigged.

Expect competing factions to argue over the result with a risk of civil unrest, particularly organised by church-affiliated supporters of Martini Fayulu.

West African worries

In West Africa both Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire are set to hold elections in 2020 but expect protests and tensions to boil over this year.

Elements of the Ivorian military might even engage in potentially violent protests, clashes and barracks takeovers again as well. Situations could flare at very short notice.

Coup concerns

Always difficult to predict, we could see military coups in 2019. There are certainly some countries which remain at risk.

Overall, coups are becoming less frequent around the world. Nonetheless, they are hugely disruptive and potentially deadly. The underlying factors are also still very much present in many countries so they cannot be written off as a thing of the past.

Public grievances, military discontent and the presence of corrupt, long-standing or otherwise unpopular leaders are some of the more basic indicators.

Historic precedent can also help determine probability – to a degree.

Venezuela

Venezuela is not expected to suffer a coup, despite the presence of the above indicators. Instead, the grim reality is that the current administration will prevail for at least another year, while dire conditions for the country’s long-suffering citizens will prompt many thousand more to flee.

This in turn will put pressure on neighbouring countries and could trigger a rise in xenophobia, especially in Brazil.

Colombia is also taking in a lot or refugees while Trinidad and Tobago is taking in a large number for a country of its size, putting pressure on the authorities.

Sudan

The regime in Sudan is far more at risk. Long standing leader Omar al-Bashir is currently facing waves of unrest.

While the security forces are using heavy force to contain events this will risk provoking a more powerful public response.

Make sure contingency plans, including both hold-fast and complete evacuation options are in place.

Turkey

Turkey will remain a coup-risk regime, but with the extensive clampdown on potential opposition supporters in all walks of life there is little scope for the organisation of any movement that would threaten the still-dominant administration of President Erdogan.

Nonetheless, the country may face major economic difficulties this year. Erdogan could be forced to seek IMF support which would severely harm his reputation, adding further elements of unpredictability to the situation.

Other potential concerns

There are several other countries facing a potential coup risk in the year ahead. Ones with consistently high-risk factors include Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Pakistan and Cameroon.

Catastrophe

While politics, people and technology could cause havoc in 2019 let’s not overlook the individual with the greatest capacity for chaos and destruction.

No, not Donald Trump. Nor Kim Jong-un.

Mother Nature

The world’s climate is getting hotter.

Humans are at least partly to blame.

With a hotter atmosphere comes more turbulent weather, such as storms, hurricanes, droughts, flooding, freezes and all sorts of variations in between.

What this means

2019 may be another game changer in global climate change.

We recently warned that meteorologists are looking out for the possible arrival of the weather phenomenon El Niño.

During the winters that it occurs, this band of warm water typically appears off the coast of Peru. When it releases its heat energy into the atmosphere it can affect weather patterns all over the world.

As such, pay attention to warnings of its arrival. If it appears, prepare for disruptive weather, disasters and agricultural failures the world over.

Disasters regardless

Even without El Niño the statistical trends (particularly related to global temperatures) are pointing to above average disruptive weather this year anyway.

North America will face tornado season from March (normally until June). Typhoon season hits East Asia from May until Autumn. The monsoon hits South Asia from June to September-October. Hurricane season will also hit the West Atlantic from June to November.

Governments will need to prepare accordingly.

Earth-shattering

As ever, some disasters are almost impossible to forecast. As always, be prepared for possibly destructive seismic activity this year.

With the historically infamous Krakatau still smouldering Indonesia faces the risk of further volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunami. It certainly suffered its fair share in 2018.

In general, the Pacific Ring of Fire will remain a high risk zone, with Alaska proving rather shaky in recent weeks.

Elsewhere pay attention to warnings around western Turkey, Central and East Africa, the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean and Iceland to name a few hotspots.

The Royal Geographical Society (where we presented Starling Safety in 2018) also recently warned of the risks posed by volcano tourism so travel responsibly!

Final optimism

Finally, I would like to end on a positive tone.

Last year was a gamechanger for Ethiopia.

Newly appointed prime minister Abiy Ahmed enacted various reforms, built trust, freed political prisoners, advanced women’s rights, negotiated peace with Eritrea and helped calm intercommunal tensions in a country dealing with ethnic and religious violence for years.

He still faces potential opposition from members of the formerly dominant Tigrayan elite, who fear marginalisation under his support for diversity in governance.

It is also still early days as regards the efficacy of his policies.

However, he could head off political challenges, oversee continued reform and build greater trust between the country’s fragmented communities. This would be cause for real optimism in 2019.

Given the subjects raised in the article above, optimism is not something we have an abundance of right now, so good luck to Ethiopia.

Whichever way the year ahead progresses, we hope you all have safe travels ahead!

 

The 2019 Travel Risk Forecast
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