Travel Risk and Infrastructure: Going Beyond “Bad Drivers”

Why Infrastructure is Important in Travel Risk Assessment

There are many casual fears that travelers may have when going abroad, among them: fear of foreign customs; lack of local language knowledge; and the general anxiety that comes from long flights and new experiences. In recent years, news headlines about terrorism and crime have ignited more dramatic fears of injury and death. U.S. travelers going to Mexico are terrified of record high homicide rates; those going to Europe, on the other hand, are worried by increasingly frequent acts of terrorism.

To be sure, travelers do need to be aware of these risks, but if you ask any travel risk analyst, they will tell you that risk related to infrastructure may be the most underrated. This blog discusses those risks, and suggests some strategies that security professionals can use to analyze infrastructure in a more comprehensive way.

What’s so Dangerous about Infrastructure?

There are several reasons why infrastructure is important to consider when thinking about safe and secure travel:

  • Absence or inadequacy – one of the most significant dangers is lack of infrastructure altogether. Statistics released by the U.S. Department of State in mid-2017 show that more Americans died abroad from drowning (156) than any other unnatural causes. While intoxication and unfamiliarity with an aquatic environment may have a lot to do with these numbers, the fact that many of these deaths occurred at locations where there is no tourist infrastructure or lifeguards also played a role. On a more basic level, poor infrastructure is an even more common problem. Roads with inadequate lighting and signage; national airlines with shoddy maintenance records; buildings that are not up to fire codes, among others, are serious issues abroad
  • Human interaction with infrastructure – how people interact with infrastructure is also a major determinant of the danger. Roads don’t kill people, after all, cars kill people. Do drivers flaunt the rules of the road in the country you are visiting? Are airport workers thoroughly vetted for qualifications? The answers to these questions could mean a world of difference between a safe and unsafe trip
  • Targeting of infrastructure – finally, infrastructure sometimes plays a major role in facilitating crimes and terrorism, the two risks that worry travelers most. Transportation hubs such as train/bus stations, ports, and airports are often a suitable spot for targeting unwary tourists for pickpocketing and other petty crimes. Furthermore, the sheer number of people within any of these facilities or in a city conference center, for instance, frequently make them targets of various kinds of terrorists

How to get Beyond the Obvious on Infrastructure

If you’ve read any travel risk analysis, you’ve probably seen all of these threats outlined before. A typical country risk report on a developing nation will say something like: “be aware that drivers are known to frequently disobey traffic signals and rules.” Although useful advice for first-time travelers, this advice is somewhat generic. So how do we, as security professionals, go further than such a catch-all statement?

  • Consider the number and rates of incidents – as a first step, look at the numbers and rates of negative incidents involving infrastructure across different geographies. In the case of traffic accidents, it is not enough to say that the roads in a particular country are chaotic. A better approach and starting point is to look at the comprehensive 2015 World Health Organization report on road safety. Using the data in the report (e.g., traffic deaths per capita), it is possible to construct a much more useful comparison of relative safety and risk at a certain location
  • Utilize comparative infrastructure ratings – as security specialists, we sometimes forget that individuals and organizations in other industries have done much of the hard analytical work for us. When it comes to infrastructure, many institutions have sophisticated methodologies for ranking or rating the quality of infrastructure. Think, for example, about using the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report to show how one country’s overall or travel-related infrastructure stacks up globally
  • Conduct a historical “stress” test – in the financial industry, stress tests are used to assess the strength of a company to weather difficult economic conditions. In the security field, one additional way to assess infrastructure is to look at how it fared during natural calamities or disasters. Did a recent storm cause significant damage to hotel buildings? Has flooding made it difficult to get from the airport to the city in the past? Granted, this type of historical analysis is not a science, but it can go a long way toward understanding risk levels

It goes without saying that local knowledge can be the most valuable information when analyzing infrastructure, but in its absence, there are many strategies to improve assessments. As security professionals we need to consider such strategies, if only to make sure employees and clients have information beyond the obvious.

Daniil Davydoff is Manager of Global Security Intelligence for AT-RISK International. In this role, he directs delivery of all intelligence-related analysis and consulting for the company’s service lines. Mr. Davydoff also has significant experience in assessing travel risk and has written on intelligence methodologies pertaining to travel.

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