Geopolitics: Where in the world?

How the fast-changing global, political and security risk map may affect your business travel programme in 2018

Do you remember Paul the Psychic Octopus? He consistently predicted the correct outcomes of football matches in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. The flags of two competing teams would be lowered into Paul’s tank and he would sit on one to indicate the winner.

Were Paul still alive today (alas he met a watery grave in October 2010), his acumen in forecasting how global geopolitics will shape business travel in 2018 would surely be little inferior to any human pundit. As many observers have commented, terrorism, Donald Trump, Brexit, North Korea and Vladimir Putin have made the world feel more uncertain than for many decades.

The question for travel managers contemplating the year ahead is whether this greater complexity and volatility in itself changes how their business assesses and manages travel risk? Arguably, risk influences travel programmes in three main ways: does it make visiting a destination more difficult or even dangerous; could it change demand for travel (for example, if a country’s economy slumps); and does it affect the cost of travel, such as through a rise in the price of oil?

But security experts don’t size up global events the same way as the rest of us. For a start, says Jason Keen, senior manager, regional security EMEA/APAC for the software company Citrix, the world only looks more volatile through Western eyes. “It’s always been there,” says Keen. “It’s just that we haven’t been aware of it.” In other regions of the world, he points out, “that kind of instability has gone on for many years. I don’t think an awful lot has changed, except for the way we perceive things,” especially, he adds, because of online content aimed at unsettling us.

As if to prove that plus ça change… for business travel, one needs only look at IATA (International Air Transport Association) figures for the first nine months of 2017. Despite all the noise, global air demand rose 7.7 per cent. In a supposedly wobbly Europe, growth hit 8.5 per cent.

Focus on real risk
Business travellers, it appears, keep calm and carry on. Hotel solutions provider HRS says that after a terrorism event the spike it experiences in room cancellations in the afflicted city normally lasts only a few days, while bookings long-term are unaffected. “One thing we have seen over and over again is business continuing in the face of geopolitical challenges,” says Charles Hecker, senior partner of the security consultancy Control Risks. “The world feels much more frightening now than it ever has but you have to separate fear from real risk. Overall we are much healthier and wealthier than we have ever been.”

Consequently, the security experts all say, the primary challenge is retaining focus on where the highest risks to business travellers truly lie. “Whenever I speak about travel security, I show a slide of a shark with massive gnashing teeth, looking very nasty, and another of a cute, fat hippo,” says Keen. “Which one poses the greater threat? Sharks have killed 50 people since 1958. Hippos kill 500 per year.”

Around 30,000 people are killed on roads in the US each year, Keen points out, while 20,000 die in Mumbai and 3,000 in the UK. Even greater numbers worldwide succumb to malaria. “People worry about the shark, but how many worry about the mosquito and malaria?” Keen asks, yet travellers to malaria-affected areas regularly fail to take prophylactics, wear long trousers and apply repellent, or take other precautions.

Yet even if the metaphorical ‘sharks’ are the lesser risk, Keen agrees some things have changed, such as the epidemic of terror attacks around Europe. “The advice we were giving to people visiting Tel Aviv four years ago is also the advice we would give to people visiting London now,” he says.

Combat complacency
Perhaps naming London as a potentially risky destination is no bad message to put across to travellers. As independent security consultant William Sandover puts it: “We tend to underestimate risks in familiar environments and overestimate them in unfamiliar ones.” That same complacency can extend to presuming routine practices in one part of the world can be applied in others. “I’ve seen people at Lagos airport trying to call an Uber,” says Sandover. “If you get to Lagos and haven’t yet made your ground transport arrangements, you’re in trouble.”

When it comes to the risks being taken by your travellers, it would appear another popular British maxim needs reiterating regardless of the specific details of the risk outlook for 2018. Be prepared.

Is phone tracking a good idea?
Increased terrorist targeting of insecure public places has changed attitudes to traveller risk management, according to Control Risks’ Charles Hecker. “Since these are places where a business traveller is likely to be, the onus is shifting to employers knowing where travellers are, even when visiting fairly routine destinations,” he says.

The earliest incarnations of traveller tracking tools tried to locate travellers through their booking records. Today, they can be followed much more directly via apps on their phones.

But is phone tracking as much a nobrainer as it sounds? Not necessarily. First, the even greater emphasis on obtaining consent in the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), effective 25 May, will oblige companies to be more careful about rules of engagement with employees on when, how and indeed if they are tracked.

But HP Risk Management’s David Holley is sceptical about how helpful tracking apps are anyway. “I’m not an advocate,” he says. “Companies are not necessarily buying these apps to protect their travellers, but to protect the managers so they can say they have done everything they can. The 3G apps only work in 3G areas. They are only as good as the connectivity available to you, and people lose their phones. You also have to ensure the platform is monitored and updated. They can give a false sense of security.”

Rocky all over the world?
Potential geopolitical impacts on travel in 2018

Donald Trump’s presidency will remain predictably unpredictable in 2018. Last year saw the sudden imposition – and equally sudden lifting – of an ill-considered ban on onboard personal electronic devices for flights from certain destinations.

Severe immigration restrictions on passport holders from Chad, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria are still in force. In March 2016, the US decided that travellers from visa waiver programme countries, including the UK, who have visited any of these countries (except Chad) since March 2011 must now apply for a visa to enter the US.

Perversely, Trump-induced volatility offers some advantages for travel managers. “Political and economic uncertainty [in the US] will limit airlines to modest fare increases of 1% at best in 2018, even if demand continues to rise,” according to Advito’s 2018 Industry Forecast.

How do you solve a problem like Korea? The war of rhetoric that broke out in 2017 between the leaders of North Korea and the US has created a duty-of-care headache for security and travel managers. In the face of nuclear threats, is it responsible behaviour to continue to send executives to the Korean peninsula, or indeed neighbouring Japan?

“It’s a difficult one because if it goes wrong, it will go wrong very fast. A lot of fingers are being crossed,” says independent travel risk consultant William Sandover.

Should it be of comfort, the view of Control Risks senior partner Charles Hecker is that: “We are confident of a political resolution. We think President Trump gets the message about the cost to South Korea. The concern is about the risk of a miscalculation [in the posturing by both sides].” So far, says Hecker, “no one has been cancelling trips to South Korea. We haven’t had a single call from a client saying, ‘Help us reorganise our supply chains so we can take South Korea out of the equation.’”

Fortunately, there is a very useful rule of thumb to guide companies on whether continuing travel to a destination is reasonable or not. “We always say: keep an eye on what the embassies are doing,” says David Holley, director of the consultancy HP Risk Management. “The UK embassy has not pulled out of Pyongyang and the US embassy has not pulled out of Seoul. Therefore, companies are justified in thinking they can send people there.”

More terror attacks in European cities must be anticipated in 2018. Crime-wise, be aware of repeated muggings of travellers gathered outside Paris airport hotels.

Politically, key risks include Brexit. Leaving aside how an UK-EU deal, or lack of one, might affect trade, and consequently business travel, direct concerns include whether unimpeded travel will continue across the UK/Ireland border and the UK will retain access to the single European aviation market. For now, there is little sign of sterling strengthening in 2018 to pre-referendum levels, which will keep foreign travel costs for UK businesses high.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Catalonian independence crisis will continue into 2018, and watch out for a highly unpredictable election in Italy, where far-right and antiestablishment parties could thrive in an atmosphere unsettled once again by the malign influence of fake news.

The World Cup in Russia may also prove problematic for visiting football teams and supporters with its potential for terror attacks and diplomatic incidents, and recriminations which may flare before, during or after the tournament.

Middle East and North Africa
The extent to which President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could undermine security in the Middle East will be closely watched. Foreign & Commonwealth Office travel advice for Israel has already changed. Another headache in an always complicated region is the intensifying struggle for dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two have locked horns through proxy conflicts and crises in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and even Qatar.

For regular business travellers, the biggest problem has been the closure of air and sea routes between Qatar and several Gulf states. Could matters get more complicated? “We are forecasting a prolonged stand-off but we haven’t seen an escalation where they are saying, ‘Either you do business with us or you do business with them,’” says Hecker. “That would change business travel patterns.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are both major oil producers and their relationship will be one of several risk factors determining the price of oil in 2018. Both put aside differences to reach consensus within OPEC countries and with Russia in November 2017 on extending capacity limits, first agreed in November 2016, to the end of 2018. The oil price has risen in consequence, but Russia especially is anxious to prevent huge increases that could stimulate new production in the US. In summary, the price will probably rise, but not drastically.

But even if the price of oil goes up, independent security consultant William Sandover says airline fuel surcharges may not result. “Such is the competition in air travel that airlines will take the hit on their profits,” he says.

Sub-Saharan Africa
The economic development of Africa is an under-reported success story, albeit with China, rather than the West, being the main beneficiary. Control Risks cites Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique as up-and-coming markets. “These are all places where business travel is possible provided you make the effort to understand them before you go and take sensible precautions,” says Hecker.

Hazard warnings required
Several Brits were bewildered to find themselves thrown into jail during 2017 after allegedly unknowingly committing offences in the countries they were visiting.

A shop assistant from Hull was imprisoned for entering Egypt carrying 290 Tramadol tablets she claimed were for her Egyptian husband.

In Dubai, a man from Stirling was imprisoned on suspicion of public indecency after he inadvertently brushed his hand against another man’s hip in a bar. A man from Edinburgh was incarcerated, also in Dubai, for handing over what proved to be a fake Scottish £20 note at a bureau de change.

Other behaviour deemed normal elsewhere but illegal in Dubai – a common business travel destination – includes homosexuality, sex outside marriage and, as of 2017, expressing sympathy for near-neighbour Qatar. Numerous familiar medicines, including assorted sleeping and slimming pills, especially in large quantities, are also proscribed.

All the above makes Dubai a classic example of why briefing employees before business trips is so important. Armed with the right information, travellers should be able to enjoy a trouble-free visit.

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