Two weeks ago I was packing for a cruise to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean when a friend called. The State Department had just issued a travel advisory for Israel, he said. I logged on to the State Department's Web site and there it was:
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza ... Government employees have been prohibited from traveling to the West Bank and Gaza and urged to avoid East Jerusalem, including the Old City. Private American citizens should avoid travel to these areas at this time and Americans residing in the West Bank and Gaza should consider relocating to a safe location, if they can do so safely ..."
A half hour later the phone rang again. It was my wife. "I was just talking with someone at the office who said he's canceling his family's trip to Turkey next week because he's afraid they'll get caught in riots. Do you think we should cancel our trip? Is it safe?"
Recent turmoil in Africa and the Middle East have underscored yet again the volatility of world politics -- and the vulnerability of the world traveler. Vacationers are understandably skittish. Why go to a region plagued by religious, political or social turbulence? Why risk ruining your vacation -- let alone ruining your life?
But sometimes it isn't easy to make last-minute travel changes. Sometimes business travelers are scheduled to attend critical meetings in a region they would otherwise avoid. Or sometimes -- as with us -- travelers are about to embark on an ambitious trip they have already organized and paid for. In such situations, the assessment of risk is complicated; you have to weigh a cornucopia of conflicting factors before deciding whether to cancel or not.
Such circumstances have given birth to a brave new entrepreneurial world: the travel security industry. This is a much more cloak-and-daggerish place than the official foreign ministry Web pages, local publication sites and message boards to which Net-savvy travelers have conventionally turned for information about what's really happening around the world. In addition to scouring the Internet themselves, travel security firms draw on global networks of intelligence operatives to help make their own risk precautions and predictions.
I must confess, right here, that basically this whole industry partly creepifies me and partly outrages me. The creepiness quotient arises from the fact that the industry is based on and nurtured by international fear and chaos; like media outlets themselves, but even more directly, travel security firms live on social and political turbulence. The outrage arises from the fact that, ironically enough, given their obsession with intelligence details, such firms intrinsically play off and promulgate old fears, stereotypes and divisions.
Don't travel, these firms will tell you. But travel is always a balance of risk and reward -- and I believe from the core of my being that the world is essentially a friendly place, and that travel is the most powerful antidote of all to the diseases of religious and racial ignorance, exclusion and persecution. It is incumbent on all of us to get out there and experience the world ourselves, not through the screen of someone else's perceptions and perspectives.
Mark Hall, manager of business development for Air Security International, and Ellen Tidd, director of Kroll Information Services, both emphasized that their companies don't tell clients not to go to a place, they just provide as much information as they can so that their clients -- mostly large multinational corporations with frequent-flying executives -- can make informed decisions.
Where do they get their information? Kroll trolls the Internet for much of its intelligence, which focuses on 300 cities, said Tidd. "We have eight analysts and 30 languages among us and we're especially expert at using Internet sources in various languages -- we read the Turkish press in Turkish, for example. Plus we have a network of people in various places sending us information all the time. We update our city reports every week at least and more frequently when the circumstances warrant."
"Air Security International has 10 information analysts who speak 15 different languages, so we use local-language newspapers and magazines extensively," Hall said. "We also have a network of 250 agents around the world who are constantly providing us information. Plus we have a sister company, Air Routing International, that regularly debriefs pilots about conditions around the world. When we see a pattern of events developing from these reports, we investigate more closely. Finally, we buy information from freelance intelligence agents on a regular basis. While most of the intelligence we use is open-source, nonclassified information, some of what we get is pretty darn close to classified. We know for a fact that some government organizations use us as a source of intelligence."
And what kind of intelligence do they provide? For example, if I had to go to Jerusalem right now on business, I asked Hall, what would ASI tell me?
"We would advise you to be sure to use secure transportation -- we could set that up for you -- and possibly to hire a bodyguard. We would tell you to avoid bus stops and religious areas and typical tourist areas. We would also tell you not to stay higher than the seventh floor in your hotel because the fire ladders don't reach beyond that level.
"ASI is recommending that its clients travel with heightened awareness if they are going to Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, Europe and Africa," Hall said. "If you are going to any country where there is a large congregation of Muslims, we are saying you should be especially aware of the situations developing around you; exercise special caution. The point really is this: When world events heat up and one faction is pitted against another, terrorists try to make a point -- and they look for vulnerable targets to do so. It's like a bomb threat in a building -- you want to exercise every precaution."
Kroll's reports try to understand and depict where the situation in a place is heading, Tidd said. "Right now, for example, we're especially concerned about Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. There are Islamic extremists based in the remote areas where these countries converge geographically; based on State Department reports, which we monitor constantly, we believe that they are gathering information about American expatriates who live in those countries. This is public information -- you just have to know where to look for it, and then you have to be on the lookout for it constantly.
"We are also increasingly concerned about Indonesia -- there's a large Islamic population there and anti-American sentiments have been simmering for some time; and South Africa, where local police say a series of bombings in Capetown over the past few years have been linked to a local Muslim vigilante group, but they haven't been able to prove the connection. Zimbabwe seems to be heading towards revolution or civil war -- agriculture is devastated, tourism is in the tank and they are having food riots regularly; Ivory Coast is a wreck; and the Philippines are also simmering with unrest over charges of corruption in the government and ongoing guerrilla problems."
Like ASI, Kroll right now is paying particular attention to places where there may be overflows -- anti-American sentiments and demonstrations -- from the Middle East conflict, Tidd said. "We are not saying don't go, but we are advising travelers to keep a very low profile and be extremely attuned to the situation around them. Avoid places associated with the U.S., such as well known American brand chain restaurants and hotels, and don't go around dressed and behaving like an American. Don't wear sneakers, for example; you might as well be wearing a T-shirt with the stars and stripes on it."
What kinds of security services do these firms offer? Kroll sells subscriptions to its city travel advisories and then consults with companies on more sophisticated risk assessments. ASI's menu of basic services includes executive protection and transportation, crisis management, due diligence intelligence (for an international chain planning to open a hotel in a country, for example, it will investigate the local power grids, the water, security concerns, the political situation, etc.) and weather monitoring. ASI also offers such exotic fare as an evacuation package. A basic evacuation can set you back as little as $5,000, Hall said. It depends on how many people are involved and how hot the situation is. When was the last evacuation? "That was in Jakarta a few years ago; we took in a 727 or a 747 and got out some 40 people when nobody else would even go in there." Do you have to pay in advance? "No, we do the job and then we bill afterwards."
These firms are not tailored to backpackers or even middle-class holiday travelers. Almost exclusively, their business is based on advising corporate clients, which are by nature conservative, cautious and paranoid about the great unknown world outside the corporate walls.
This paranoia is the security firms' sweet spot. View the planet through the lens of ASI's "hot spots" Web site, which posts updated reports each day on the world's 10 to 25 biggest hot spots, and you discover a paranoiac's paradise. On the day I spoke with Hall, Oct. 25, the site included information on protests in Romania over a failed investment scheme; power outages in Yugoslavia; anti-Israel protests in Jordan, Indonesia and Bangladesh; a riot of 3,000 villagers in Sri Lanka; severe rail line disruptions between Scotland and England; an earthquake and ethnic clashes in Indonesia; a typhoon near Okinawa; political clashes in Egypt; and fuel prices more than doubling in Somalia, bringing traffic to a standstill in Mogadishu.
While all of these are true, experienced travelers know that such reports give only the merest sliver of a much larger picture. When I was just out of college, I lived in Athens, Greece, for a year on a teaching fellowship. This was in the time of the hated colonels, who had been backed by the United States, and protests outside the U.S. embassy were an everyday occurrence. Sometimes out of curiosity my friends and I would go to mingle among the protesters; we would wear backpacks with Canadian flags on them and speak French to each other, but beyond those simple precautions, I never felt worried. Even when tanks were brought into the streets, I never for a moment thought about leaving Athens. And yet friends and family back in the States watched footage of those same tanks rumbling through the tear-gas clouds and thought I must be suicidal.
It's a question of perspective, knowledge and sensitivity. I understand the need for corporations to look to security firms to safeguard their precious executives, but at the same time I resist the image of the world those firms intrinsically convey -- and am repelled by the way they cash in on chaos, or on the perception or threat of chaos.
"How does it feel to profit from terrorism around the world?" I asked Tibb at one point. "Don't you at least feel ambivalent about making money from other people's misery?"
"Our feeling is that the world is going to do what it's going to do, regardless," she said. "What we do is keep our clients informed so that they can avoid getting caught up in these terrible problems and make decisions with as much background information as possible."
When I asked ASI's Hall the same questions, he said, "Look, we don't create the problems; we just monitor them. And we go out of our way not to scare people unnecessarily -- unlike some of our competitors. It's easy to scare people with misinformation. Our philosophy is that we give people a logical point of view so they can make an intelligent decision. And believe me, we don't high-five each other when a revolution happens somewhere. We have agents, connections, friends around the world; when these events happen, it hits us very, very close to home."
Well, OK, it's too easy to condemn these firms for preying on corporate ignorance and fear; if they can save some lives, God bless them. But it's also too easy to fall prey to the notion that the planet is fundamentally daunting and dangerous, and that we need to rely on the intelligence and advice of firms such as these to understand and navigate the world.
Is it safe? We have just returned from our cruise, which began in Venice, Italy, and stopped in Rab and Dubrovnik, Croatia; Corfu and Sicily before ending on Italy's west coast. Throughout our journey, I'm happy to say, from the Croatian countryside to the quais of Corfu, nary an anti-American word was heard.
While this was hardly a death-defying odyssey -- Dubrovnik was probably as close as we got to the heart of world conflict -- it did profoundly reinforce for me a truth I have long held dear: The world would be a much less safe place if we all stayed home. In our own small way, we travelers are like pilgrims, lighting candles against the darkness, hand to hand, as we go.