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Travelling Wisely

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Travelling Wisely
Bruce Palmer
8/4/2015
Stay aware while you travel.

​​Protesters take to street in the downtown core.​1 A factory owner beheaded and ISIS flag raised.2 Tunnel collapse and imminent earth movement expected.3 Street violence between Uber drivers and Taxi drivers as vehicles set ablaze.​4

Would any of these events affect your travel plans? Would you want to know about these events if they were happening where and when you are travelling?

For me, travelling is one of the great joys in life: I love meeting new people (I almost always come home with a new friend), having new experiences (or re-living old ones), and trying new cultures, customs, and cuisine. But travel also exposes us to risks we would not normally face, everything from the events listed above to disease outbreaks and unusual weather. For my own peace of mind and travel enjoyment, I increasingly look to protect myself using simple techniques such as registering with Travel Overwatch (through OPIP), checking the Canadian government website on travel warnings, and buying myself travel insurance.

Trouble i​​​n Paradise​

It seems that my vacation this summer occurred during an unusually eventful time, as all of the events at the beginning of this article happened during what seemed to me to be a quiet two-week getaway. (No, I was not travelling through Syria or Iraq, I was in the pretty mainstream countries of France and Switzerland: protests in Geneva, beheading in Grenoble, tunnel collapse just west of La Grave, Uber-taxi clashes everywhere but specifically in Paris.) I can say from first-hand experience that only one of these events – the tunnel collapse – affected my recent vacation travels. Although these events did not affect my plans, I was happy I knew about them. 

Honestly, there is a limit to how much news I really want to know about while on vacation: I am on vacation to relax, not to get embroiled in world events. But events which might affect my safety, my travel plans, or that could endanger my well-being I do care about. As I have mentioned before, managing risk – its evaluation, avoidance, transference, or acceptance – is a big part of how I view life.

Although this year seemed unusually fraught with peril, it was not the first travel in which changing circumstances – weather, political or civil unrest, or natural disasters – have made me want to stay aware of local and world events. In Iceland there was an erupting volcano; in Hawaii we had a storm that washed out roads; in Morocco the neighbouring country ramped up its civil war; in Zanzibar there were bombs going off in the local marketplace; in Italy we had striking train technicians. I missed the Boston Marathon bombing because I decided to avoid closed roads and went to New York City instead; SARS forced me into two weeks of "quarantine" when I started work in Amsterdam in 2003.  My first flight ever to Europe was on Swissair in September 1998 aboard a brand new plane, replacing the one that crashed into the Atlantic the week before (we had double the normal crew as they were all still being trained on the new plane.) At Expo 86 in Vancouver, a young girl was crushed to death in the rotating theatre where we were (until then) enjoying a show.

In Times of Troubl​​e

I am not alone in my love of travel:  in 2011, Canadians made more than 59 million visits abroad.5  Despite occasionally feeling surrounded by disaster, it appears that I am not the source of all the misfortune that seems to surround me:  every year Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) handles more than 6,700 distress situations from Canadians traveling abroad including over 1800 arrests and detentions and over 1900 cases involving medical emergencies and deaths. About 10,000 lost passports are re-issued every year outside of Canada.

Personally, I try to avoid being one of the above statistics. I do not really think of myself as a risk-taker and one of the ways I try to minimise my risk is to stay aware of my surroundings and what is happening nearby. I rely on a variety of information sources about the risks I might face on my travels:

  • Local TV and newspapers:  many events that directly affect you in a foreign location never make the global media.  Even if you do not fully read the language, you can often get the general idea from watching, and never be shy about asking help at your hotel or local restaurant so that you can understand what is happening. Street violence between Uber and Taxi drivers I saw on a TV in a sports bar while using the washroom (honest, I was not drinking there… at least not this bar).  Later, I saw the headlines in newspapers.
  • Tour guides and operators usually stay very in touch with anything that affects the transportation system. News of the tunnel collapse – which actually happened back in April but did not really make the news until it caused a stage in Le Tour de France to be altered – came to me first through the company operating my bike tour, since it required a relatively significant change in our route (a 45 minute bicycle ride to the base of Alpe d'Huez became a three-hour van ride to the same location). Travelling in France, I heard plenty more from the many cyclists with whom I came into contact.
  • Fellow travellers are also a good source of information: I look for experienced folks who speak multiple languages as they tend to pick up the local news and gossip first.  I first heard about the Grenoble beheading from a couple of Swedish cyclists I bumped into on the train from Geneva to Annecy.  Once I had Wi-Fi, I searched for more information and was relieved to learn the sole perpetrator was out of action.
  • The Government of Canada, at http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories, has useful Travel Advisories.  These are not real time alerts, but they give useful information on everything from health entry/exit requirements to climate, and also provide assistance numbers for the nearest embassies and consul generals.
  • The Security Evacuation Coverage (SEC) and the associated Travel Overwatch service, provided at no extra cost as part of OPIP, are great sources of relevant news and some peace of mind. A Country Alert received from Drum Cussac, the provider of the Security Evacuation Coverage, is how I learned about the street protests in Geneva.  Crucially, I learned about these in real time – as they were starting – rather than after the fact as is the case from most news sources.​

I'd like to see the world for once, All standing hand in hand. 
And hear them echo through the hills, For peace throughout the land​​6

As much as I like that 44-year-old Coca-Cola commercial, the world is not always a peaceful place. If you are travelling, you need to be smart about it: for me, that means having some knowledge. Pay attention to the world around you even as you relax. Prepare by checking out sources such as Travel.gc.ca. If you are an OPIP member, I encourage you to use the SEC Overwatch Services: not only do you get a pre-travel email filled with information on the country you are travelling to, but you will also get Arrival Confirmation requests for each leg of your journey and you get Country Alerts if something you should know about occurs.  The goal, of course, is to help you make informed decisions about the risks – and changes in those risks – associated with your travels.

The Bright S​​​ide of Life

Some travel risks, of course, we just choose to accept or even seem to actively seek out. My first trip to Europe – the one I had waited a lifetime for – was not going to be stopped by a statistically unlikely crash the week before.  No additional information sources (or weather advisories) were going to keep me from riding my bike up the Alps this summer, despite the 37°C weather, and it was going to take more than strong winds to keep me from then riding back down those same cliff-hugging roads at high speed on my way to the next climb. 

I should state – just so you do not get the wrong impression of me – that these were not risks I took on without preparation and planning. I knew the improbability of a second airplane crash before I flew (and I knew I was flying in a different type of airplane) when I first traveled to Europe. On my bike ride, I had plenty of liquids going up the mountains and a support van looking out for me. Going down, I had an amazing bike, great sightlines to ensure the roads were free of traffic or other obstacles, good quality roads, and a fair bit of experience in mountain descents.

The experience of travel and of learning from new situations – taking some risks and avoiding others – brightens my life. Which brings me back to all those risks listed at the start of this article:  not all risks are worth avoiding. Knowing about these risks and being able to make informed decisions enable us to make educated choices. Travel well, travel wisely.  Have fun and enjoy.  ​

http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.663614.  June 29, 2015

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11700513/Grenoble-attack-Man-found-beheaded-and-Islamist-flag-raised-above-French-factory-live.html. June 26, 2015

3 http://www.francepost.work/news/Tunnel-du-Cham​bon.  June 25, 2015

4 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/26/business/international/uber-protests-france.html?_r=0. June 25, 2015​​

5 All figures in this paragraph are from 'Consular Activity in 2011, Incident Report for Canadians Abroad',  http://travel.gc.ca/docs/pdf/consular-activity-in-2011.pdf

​6 ​Read more: New Seekers - I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing Lyrics | MetroLyrics,http://www.metrolyrics.com/id-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-lyrics-new-seekers.html ​

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