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July 2000 Vol. 26, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Insured against Uprisings?

what to do when the coup beats you to paradise

from the July, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Mixed in with memories of dive trips is an image of tropical paradise, and generally speaking, the image tends to be a peaceful one. Periodically the image of utopia has been shattered by crime and terrorist threats, but none so singularly directed at divers as the recent attack on Sipadan Island in Malaysia, when terrorists invaded the quiet island and took a score of vacationing divers hostage.

The hostages’ ordeal has defied quick resolution. Despite the crisis, however, increased security measures on Sipadan have allowed dive travel to continue. Divers are reportedly arriving as scheduled with all services operating normally. Malaysia Airlines is scheduled to bring a group of U.S. divers to the island in the next few weeks.

Despite the Suva coup in which Fiji’s Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was taken hostage, dive travel there reportedly hasn’t skipped a beat. Divers have been able to come and go from the Nadi airport with only slight disruptions, notwithstanding the State Department’s request that U.S. citizens defer nonessential travel to the area. In an effort to deal with the crisis that began on May 19 when gunmen took Chaudhry and some 30 others hostage, martial law has been imposed. Rioting and gunfire have been rampant in the wake of the coup but have generally been confined to the Suva area.

After an attempted coup in Honiara, the situation in the neighboring Solomon Islands is bloodier by far. Armed militants have seized control of Honiara police stations and communications facilities, set up roadblocks outside Honiara, and detained the prime minister and governor general. Up to 20,000 residents have reportedly fled their Guadalcanal homes and scores have died in the fighting. The State Department has issued a warning to U.S. citizens to defer travel to the Solomons, and travel is a difficult prospect at best since both flights and telecommunications have been disrupted in Honiara.

Add to the formula the rapes, car hijackings, and armed robberies that plague Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby, the bombings and grenade attacks in parks, police stations, museums, the airport, and other locations in Manila, violence in the Philippine islands of Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Jolo, and continuing strife in parts of Indonesia, and the sum total is definitely an inhospitable Pacific dive travel environment. Short of shying away from Pacific destinations altogether, what alternatives do divers have to protect their dive trip investment?

It seems like exactly the sort of problem trip cancellation insurance was designed for, but look carefully before deciding that a trip cancellation policy will help you hold on to your hard-earned travel dollars. Most companies have strict requirements about the type of incidents that are covered under their policies, and in many cases the unrest described above would not qualify for reimbursement.

Access America, CSA, and TravelSafe differentiate between terrorist incidents and episodes of civil unrest, which include coups, riots, and uprisings. Surprisingly, isolated terrorist incidents, such as the Sipadan kidnapping, would be covered under their policies, while civil unrest would not. Almost all companies require that the event be unforeseen to qualify for coverage, which means that the destinations listed above, where civil unrest is ongoing, would not be covered. And, even if you have purchased insurance for a trip to an area that has had no prior disturbances and a problem subsequently develops that leads you to cancel the trip, there’s no guarantee that the policy will reimburse you for trip costs. The decision of whether an “incident” qualifies as a terrorist one rests with the insurer.

Access America requires that a terrorist attack must have occurred within 10 days of arrival to be covered, and the decision of whether an attack is a terrorist incident rests with its underwriters. Travel Guard covers for unforeseen events only (i.e., the policy must have been purchased prior to the initial event), and payment is made only if the State Department has issued a warning. CSA covers only cancellations due to events that have occurred within 30 days that its underwriters determine are terrorist incidents, while TravelSafe covers only cancellations due to unforeseen terrorist incidents in which the airline or other carrier refuses to make the trip.

How does all this stack up in terms of travel protection? If a band of armed guerrillas machine guns guests at a resort, it’s hardly reasonable to expect insured divers to make the trip a mere eleven days later. Making the criterion for a safe journey an airline’s willingness to fly into a destination seems equally unfair. Touching down at the airport is one thing, but diving near a terrorist camp is another.

Obviously, trip insurance is no panacea. Nor is it a substitute for researching your destination beforehand. If you’d like to find out about problems ranging from terrorism to volcanic eruption anywhere on the globe, the State Department’s website at is a great place to start investigating. If what you see there is encouraging but you’d like to purchase trip insurance for extra peace of mind, reader Samuel Johnson (San Francisco CA) offers this suggestion about travel insurance policies: “read the fine print. The big print giveth, but the little print taketh away.”

— John Q. Trigger

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