In 2010, a little-known volcano called Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, and air traffic around the world was impacted. Several countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic, reportedly affecting 10 million travellers. Ajay Shah, 25, was one of them. In the United Kingdom for a break, the entrepreneur’s flight was cancelled and he had no idea when he would get the next one out. "I had little to no cash, my hotel booking was about to end and my visa was set to expire. Plus, there was no news of when flights would be allowed to take off. Everything was so uncertain," he says.
Natural calamities strike without warning. Sudden political unrest in a foreign land can create even more of a crisis. With a constantly changing global scenario, adapting to situations is becoming a necessity for a frequent traveller.
This was precisely what lawyer Tanvi Mhatre did when she visited Cairo, Egypt, in 2012. She and her family knew of the protests taking place, but had no idea that normal life had been thrown out of gear. Unable to visit popular tourist attractions in the city, the group changed their itinerary to include sites from other parts of the country. “Tourism was low, so we managed to get into hotels in less volatile areas. It was about thinking on our feet. We also constantly monitored the situation,” she says.
Plan of action
Travel agencies, too, now plan for situations which are unforeseen, unpredictable and require an immediate plan of action. "In such situations, our on-ground managers and local travel partners closely monitor the latest developments and take every precaution to ensure the safety of our customers," says Shibani Phadkar, senior vice president — products and operations, leisure travel (outbound), Thomas Cook (India). Karan Anand, head-relationships, Cox and Kings, adds, "We advise customers to avoid volatile areas. But if they are already there, we get in touch, and ensure that we evacuate them. If we are unable to do it, we arrange for accommodation in that country till the situation returns to normalcy."
But a lot of what we hear comes from social networking sites and media reports from the area. At times, this news can be conflicting. Take these incidents, for example. After the army seized power last month, holidays to Thailand — a favourite destination among Indians — were postponed. However, tourists returning from the country reported that the curfew has been lifted in Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui. Bangkok, too, was considered safe to travel and open for business. Similarly, fans were encouraged to visit Brazil for the FIFA World Cup despite ongoing protests over other issues in the country. So, the question is, how does one know whom to contact for accurate information?
Sethaphan Buddhani, director, Tourism Authority of Thailand – Mumbai office, recommends reaching out to the right channels — tourism authorities, embassies or consulates — since they are tasked with providing accurate and timely information. This is an option for tourists who are already there, or those planning to visit. He says, “At the moment, travel to Thailand is on track. But during the protests last month, and when the curfew was being enforced all over the country, our advice to people was this — even though protest areas were buzzing with concerts, food and clothing stalls, they should not venture into these few, isolated areas of Bangkok. We advised them to explore the rest of the city instead, and other parts of Thailand."
During an emergency:
In the face of a natural calamity or sudden unrest, most governments (or at least those in tourism-driven economies) will immediately set up provisions for both citizens and tourists. The other option is to reach out to your own country’s embassy.
Talking to people at government organisations offers a certain degree of accountability, given that you’re communicating with somebody in the know. It will also give travellers details like where not to go and what not to do if you keep travelling.
Follow instructions, particularly at this time. The focus of law enforcement agencies changes at this time from regular policing to making sure people are safe.
Seek advice and thorough information from the tourism board. For instance, in Thailand, there’s a hotline for tourists — 1672.
Whatever you do, don’t interfere and get involved in a protest or rescue operation.
Tips by Sethaphan Buddhani, director, Tourism Authority of Thailand —Mumbai office
When travelling to a foreign country, keep your passport and tickets with you at all times. Also, carry copies of your passports, visa pages, and travel insurance.
Keep emergency contact numbers and details of your home country’s consulate or embassy handy.
A multi-currency forex prepaid card is extremely convenient. It offers you the safety of a chip and pin, benefits of multiple currencies loaded on to a single card, and multiple access points worldwide.
Get prior travel insurance to minimise the considerable financial risks of travelling — accidents, illness, missed flights, trip cancellation, loss of checked baggage or — in rare, worst-case scenarios — terrorism or emergency evacuation.