Personal safety is now a high priority for all travellers, but it is no longer the international businessman who makes risk assessments when planning to fly abroad or stay in an unfamiliar hotel.
Personal safety is now a high priority for all travellers, but it is no longer the international businessman who makes risk assessments when planning to fly abroad or stay in an unfamiliar hotel. Terrorism, gang crime, organised extortion and anti-western disaffection have transformed some of the world’s popular destinations into warning pages on US State Department and UK Foreign Office websites. The very idea of renting a beachside villa in Ocho Rios, spending a gloriously indulgent weekend at the Habitation Leclerc in Haiti, testing the legendary salinity of the Dead Sea or scuba diving off Sharm-el-Sheikh, implies especially close scrutiny of the small print on the travel insurance cover. Armed guards now swarm over the Valley of the Kings, fearful that another atrocity involving tourists will wreck the Egyptian tourist industry forever.
Hiking in Nepal, once the most peaceful of remote countries, now requires bodyguards and protection from prowling Maoist guerrillas. Kidnap is a significant industry in the Hindu Kush and on the otherwise delightful Mindinao, and who might have imagined that gentle Bali would fall victim to suicide bombers? Pick-pocketing has been rife for years in such popular spots as Las Ramblas in Barcelona and across the Italian Riviera, but nothing changes a life quite like a violent home invasion robbery on the Cote d’Azur or a terrorist bomb in a Casablanca café.
Abductions are commonplace in the Philippines, and many parts of Central and South America present serious hazards for the independent traveller. A well-known merchant banker and his wife were beaten up and robbed in the famous Villa San Michelle, in Fiesole, suggesting that Italian luxury hotels are hardly a reliable safe-haven, and a rocket-propelled grenade fired by pirates penetrated the hull of a Seabourn cruise ship off the coast of Somalia, proving that the high seas do not offer total protection either.
Private yacht chartering in the Caribbean has always involved a degree of danger and Colombian drug smugglers continue to seize boats from the unwary, or those who prefer to moor overnight in secluded cays rather than endure noisy marinas. Long gone are the days when an experienced skipper could scare off potential borders by displaying the boat’s shotgun, removed briefly from its ingenious concealment where it had lain undiscovered by cursory customs inspections.
In today’s violent world, the pirates prove more than a match for even the heavily-armed US Coastguard and the penalties for carrying defensive weapons on board can be onerous, especially in some of the smaller islands where corrupt administrations seem dependent on shaking down visitors. Confiscation of yachts until a spurious fine has been settled has always been a popular method of raising local revenue while masquerading as an efficient jurisdiction.
Specialist advice on international travel is plentiful, and several companies, including Honeywell and SOS offer subscription access to dedicated commercial websites offering threat analysis on a country and regional basis, and many companies rely on the State Department’s Overseas Advisory Council (OSAC), inspired originally by Secretary of State George Schultz, which offers regularly updated bulletins that are considered absolutely essential for anyone contemplating a visit to a high-risk environment.
‘Pakistan, Colombia and other similar countries where there is a threat potential are entirely practical when the traveller has been properly briefed,’ says Dan Mulvenna, a global security and risk management consultant with experience of Amoco and Merck, based in Virginia with Fortune 500 clients in energy, pharmaceutical and financial sectors. ‘Once you understand the local situation and adopt the appropriate behavior, the threat is significantly diminished and your chances of being caught up in an incident minimized. With good planning, corporations can get a competitive advantage over their rivals by operating in these areas.’
Inevitably the pattern of travel is changing, and it is not limited to the super-rich opting for private jets in preference to the misery of scheduled flights. Large parts of the Middle East may now be off-limits, but peace has been returned in the former Yugoslavia where the restoration has made it hard to imagine that Dubrovnik was shelled in the all-too-recent conflict. Who could have foreseen that the Falkland Islands would become a popular destination, especially for the luxury cruise ships searching for new ports for their apparently ever-increasing cargos of well-heeled adventure-seekers? Who would have believed that old, boring but dependable Swissair would go belly-up and leave passengers stranded across the globe?
The extraordinary growth of those who prefer to unpack once, but visit several countries during a cruise is partly explained by demographics – they are of the age when renting a house in Tuscany or a villa in Barbados seems much more trouble than joining a ready-made house-party where prodigious consumption does not have to take place behind high walls. The appeal to the mass market by lines such as the Los Angeles-based Celebrity has opened up a previously exclusive vacation opportunity to those who in the not so distant past could never have contemplated a voyage on a luxury ship. Whereas a transatlantic week on the old Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth would have been far beyond the dreams of all but the most fortunate, and the QE2 established a reputation for unsurpassed quality, Cunard’s new QM2, about to be joined by the Victoria, have cabins that match every price range.
The impact of Royal Caribbean and even the slightly more upscale Holland-America has been to encourage an expansion in the smaller yachts, of up to 100 suites, many of which are all-inclusive so once aboard there are no further bills, and no signing for drinks. This end of the market, dominated by Seabourn, Windstar and Radisson Seven Seas, is very attractive to those who have themselves owned their own boats and have become disenchanted with the often fraught logistics of managing a skipper and crew all year round, and prefer the worry-free pampering associated with the impeccable service associated with the smaller cruise ships, and with Crystal, the Japanese-owned line which runs the Symphony and Serenity.
As well as boasting top-level service, grand-hotel comfort and cuisine, and even first-rate after-dinner cabaret and shows, the cruise ships offer total security. Every vessel has a discreet security staff, usually drawn from the Royal Marines and the Ghurkas, and their role goes far beyond ensuring stowaways do not slip aboard in Mumbai. The relative amateurism of two decades ago, when Palestinian gunmen briefly seized the Achille Lauro in the eastern Mediterranean, en route to Israel in October 1985, and the Special Boat Squadron parachuted a four-man team into the Atlantic in May 1972 to join the QE2 during a terrorist bomb alert (which proved to be a hoax), has been replaced by a tough professionalism with a cadre of well-trained Special Forces veterans who ensure that visits to Antartica, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef and other remote destinations are reached safely and without external interference.
The only indication the guests may notice will be an increase in personnel ambling around the desks at night when transiting the Straits of Malacca and a few other pirate-infested waters. Armed, uniformed US Homeland Security guards also patrol on some ships in and out of mainland ports, both as a deterrent and in response to intelligence. However, the pirate gangs, usually intent on extorting ransoms from the bulk-carrier owners, tend to avoid the relatively fast, maneouvrable, well-defended cruise ships in preference to the slow, unwieldy, lightly-crewed tankers.
In an age of increasing tourist pollution adversely affecting the Caribbean, Pataya, some of French Polynesia and even Matapichu in Peru, the demanding traveller seeks new horizons, and the cruise ships have responded to the challenge with some imaginative destinations. Alaska, Gotland, the North Cape and the Norwegian Fjords are still on the itineraries, but so too are Pitcairn Island, St Helena and the Amazon.
Even shore excursions, once a tedious scramble for coaches and tour guides, are now preplanned bespoke trips organised by personal concierges and range from three-day tented safaris in Botswana, private access to the Taj Mahal or dune-driving in Namibia. The options offered by Crystal include a flight in a MiG-21 fighter on the famous World Cruise, and the democratisation of central Europe and the former Soviet countries in the Baltic provide every kind of side-trip, including visits to abandoned Soviet nuclear warhead bunkers, missile silos and radar installations.
There is probably no guaranteed escape from freak weather, unpredictable local politics, unexpected epidemics and the other hazards of modern, 21st-century travel, but there are several explanations for the renewed interest in luxury travel afloat. Firstly, satellite communications ensure that individual cellphones connect in mid-ocean, and internet access is permanently available at a cost of rather less than in many hotels on land.
Secondly, maritime surveillance is now very sophisticated and is conducted by a variety of international agencies, partly to interdict contraband and monitor pollution, but also to maintain a watch on suspicious vessels. The chances of a rogue captain flushing his fuel tanks, even at night, and getting away with the crime, are slim indeed. When the Seabourn ship received an RPG round, which did not detonate and caused no injury, the security staff deployed a sonic weapon and made off at high speed, leaving the pirates to be intercepted soon afterwards by the USS Winston Churchill which was on patrol in the Indian Ocean.
Finally, should anything go wrong, the cruise professionals have the resources instantly available to handle any emergency. No wonder stress-free travel is no more closely linked to the luxury cruise ships.