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February 2003 Vol. 29, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Travel Safety in the Age of Terrorism

Bali? The Red Sea? The Philippines?

from the February, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A key element in terrorism is shock value. That's why the October nightclub bombing in Bali was so unnerving. Although we're now hearing that the CIA had been warning about an attack there for some time, as a primarily Hindu enclave, Bali has been far removed from trouble spots such as Jakarta and East Timor. One fanatical act changed all that in an instant.

Undercurrent's webmaster, Dave Eagleray, has been living in the Bali town of Ubud for two years and says as far as he's concerned "this place is still far safer than just about any place in the U.S." As one might expect, people in the dive travel industry echo the sentiment. Jenny Collister of Reef & Rainforest Travel says she is booking Indonesia dive trips "like mad." Her September 2003 departure has been sold out for a year, with a substantial wait list. "People are scrambling for spots on a 2004 trip to the Banda Sea," she adds. While Collister won't bother recommending destinations tagged unsafe to those who haven't been there, most of her well-traveled, well-educated clients know where they want to go and are not looking for advice. "Chances are they've been talking to others who have visited these destinations recently" and have made up their own minds about whether to go. As Ken Knezick, president of Island Dreams Tours & Travel, puts it: "The adventurous scuba traveler is knowledgeable and willing to accept a level of risk."

Indonesia Security

For Peter Hughes Diving, which operates the Komodo Dancer, it's business as usual. Sales and Marketing Vice President Sue Hamilton told Undercurrent that right after the bombing, they allowed Dancer passengers to rebook on later departures or on other Peter Hughes vessels. That's a policy she says they follow any time a State Department security advisory is issued on a destination Peter Hughes serves. Guido Brink, a partner in the Hughes' Bali-based Komodo Dancer, says they now escort passengers between the airport, hotel, and the vessel. The crew has been instructed to let no strangers on board, either at the dock or at sea. "No more nonessential people on the docks. Tighter security at all gates. Patrol boats are manned by police and park rangers in the Komodo National Park who execute routine checks on any boat coming into the park."

American-owned Kungkungan Bay Resort on Lembeh Strait in Northern Sulawesi has beefed up security. Undercurrent subscriber Larry Murphy of Atlanta, Ga., traveled to KBR from Bali just after the bombing and reports that the resort "had already hired private security to patrol the grounds 24 hours a day. Soon a detachment of Indonesian Water Police (unarmed) were stationed on the premises, and finally another detachment of armed military, one of whom was present on the dive boat with a rifle in the ready. We felt secure." Murphy added that he'd noticed military protection at resorts on Sipadan, Mabul, and Lankayan, as well.

And while reader Charles Stearns felt safe there in July, he quoted friends diving with Roger Steene in December who said: "If we're so safe, why the AK47's?" Stearns says KBR is his all-time favorite destination, but his first rule is not to become a CNN persona as a hostage or victim.

Travel writer Ed Perkins said in a recent column: "I see no end to terrorist threats against Americans, wherever they are; a war on Iraq would almost certainly increase the threat. Keep in mind that we always react to the last attack rather than anticipate the next one. Improved aviation security? Look for attacks elsewhere."

Attacks by members of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group based in the southern Philippines are still a concern to the State Department. ASG, linked to Al Quaida, was responsible for the armed kidnappings of dive tourists from Sipadan in 2000. In November, Philippine communist rebels killed four soldiers and torched a mobile phone relay station at Puerto Galera, a resort close to the Manila that is one of the country's best-known scuba diving spots.

After we reviewed Philippine diving in September, Undercurrent reader Geofrey Engel, M.D., wrote to say we should have written more about the dangers of traveling there. Filipino friends in the medical profession tell him it's quite dangerous for an American to travel in the Philippines. A November 3, 2002, State Department announcement states "the terrorist threat to Americans in the Philippines remains high. I think that we must view travel to some exotic destinations with skepticism."

Could liveaboards be a target?

As if terrorism isn't enough to worry about, piracy is rampant in Indonesia and in the Malacca Strait, the shortest trade route from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, which runs through the territorial waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The International Maritime Bureau recorded 469 attacks on ships last year, an almost five-fold increase since 1990. So far, pirates seem to have targeted cargo vessels, which when stripped of their booty can be resold or reused to capture other ships. Could liveaboards, with 16 or so potential American hostages, be a target?

Brett Gilliam, publisher of Fathoms magazine, notes that most liveaboards post 24-hour watches and operate far beyond piracy areas, generally in lightly inhabited areas where strange vessels are easily spotted. But that hardly seems sufficient defense against speedboat-equipped kidnappers with automatic weapons, such as the thugs who invaded Sipadan.

There are other hotspots. For instance, Gilliam has no desire to return to the Red Sea. "The quality of diving no longer measures up to the risk," he says. The Solomon Islands are still going through their own upheavals, although tourists have not been targets, nor have remote dive locations. On December 20, 2002, the State Department declared, "Americans planning to visit the Solomon Islands should contact the U.S. Consular Agent in Honiara or the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, for updates on the security situation."

Most travel experts agree that the chance of being mugged, robbed, or sexually assaulted in some Third World areas far outweighs the dangers of terrorism, so in unfamiliar urban areas exercise the same caution in Honiara or Port Moresby as you would in Philadelphia. Persons with limited experience who plan to travel extensively in developing nations should arrange for a knowledgeable citizen or expatriate companion whenever possible.

If you book a trip and then find that the political situation has worsened, try to negotiate a change in itinerary with your carrier and dive operator. Jenny Collister notes that Cathay Pacific waived cancellation charges after the Bali bombing. Failing that, you may get some relief from travel insurance, but be warned that many carriers have changed their coverage since 9/11. Each policy is different, so check the fine print. While you're at it, check your medical insurance as well. The State Department points out that U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the U.S., particularly Medicare and Medicaid.

It's not Undercurrent's place to steer people away from any given dive destination. But before you venture into a strange land, be as well informed as possible. If you're concerned, stick to safer destinations, and thankfully there are still plenty to choose from. Ken Knezick recalls that during the travel slowdown after the Gulf War, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America became more popular destinations.

You can find updated U.S. State Department travel warnings at

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