The New Travel Security Risks Resulting from COVID-19

Our World Travel Protection Regional Security Director, Rodger Cook, shares the essential pandemic travel risk and safety advice you may not have considered…

The travel industry turned on its head when the novel coronavirus hit the headlines in early 2020. Bustling airports essentially emptied overnight, with both domestic and international leisure travel all but obliterated.

While leisure travel has been significantly reduced as a result of COVID-19, business travel continues to occur. The industry may not be running at the pace it once was, however, travel is still vital for many industries to maintain operations.

Soon, when coronavirus restrictions ease, lockdowns lift and more global borders open, many companies will increase business travel for those employees in areas that were deemed non-essential for travel during the height of the pandemic. And soon after that, leisure travellers will follow suit, helping the travel industry to slowly start to return to normal, pre-COVID-19 levels.

We know traveller safety always needs to be considered – whether people are travelling for business or leisure – but did you know COVID-19 has created a number of new travel risks? The obvious risks are health-related, however, unscrupulous individuals are now taking advantage of the current global pandemic and introducing or increasing existing travel security risks as well.

To help keep you safe, here are our expert security tips for reducing and avoiding the travel security risks you’re exposed to as a traveller during the coronavirus pandemic.

Why COVID-19 security risks differ from regular travel security risks

We know the coronavirus pandemic didn’t create travel safety and security issues – they already existed prior to the pandemic. However, the frequency and volume at which people are travelling during COVID-19 has left those who are travelling more vulnerable and susceptible to risks.

“When you’re travelling as a large group – be it a sporting team, school students or colleagues – it’s difficult for a predator to spot the weakest prey within the group as you move through the airport,” explains Rodger Cook World Travel Protection’s Regional Security Director.

“When you travel in smaller numbers – or there are fewer travellers within close proximity in the same airport – the chances of you meeting a predator at customs, immigration or baggage collection becomes more likely.”

This risk compounds if you’re a solo traveller in this current environment, too, because solo male and female travellers are simpler to spot without the crowds surrounding them.

Sadly, predators eyeing off weak prey or solo traveller are now also becoming more determined to rip off travellers. Why? Locals who rely on income from business travellers and tourists (be it legitimate or illegal) are likely experiencing cash flow issues during the pandemic and may turn to more desperate measures to survive.

In some countries, you might be met by a corrupt border official who would normally interact with thousands of travellers a day, but they’re now only seeing a handful.

“The money this official may have been able to gain through corrupt means has been significantly reduced in COVID-19 times and this can lead to a confrontation.

“And, in countries where the main income is the tourist dollar, the overall economic impact of the pandemic also has the potential to turn those who are normally part of the honest majority into being a part of the dishonest minority, so travellers need to be on alert.”

While the types of risks faced by travellers are constant, as a result of the economic impacts caused by COVID-19, there is likely to be greater desperation from those people who commit a crime. Combine that with the limited number of travellers and opportunities for income and there is a certain level of desperation in some areas of the world.

Woman on laptop wearing face mask

What are the biggest COVID-19 travel and safety risks?

Travelling during a pandemic brings with it numerous health and security risks, making it important for all travellers and companies to increase their overall travel safety measures.

We recommend looking out for these two particular pandemic travel risks:

1. Environmental risks

Predators, opportunistic government officials, baggage handlers and touts in arrival lounges may be looking for opportunities to exploit travellers inside the airport during the coronavirus pandemic, but this doesn’t mean you can let your guard down after leaving the airport.

“It might be people running illegal taxi services, fake ‘tour guides’, accommodation spruikers or more sinister types, but either way, you need to be on the lookout for people who are trying to take advantage of travellers outside of the airport environment,” says Cook.

“With a limited amount of people travelling, there are fewer people to target and their income has been significantly reduced, which can lead to desperation and an increase in more serious attempts at things like armed robbery or even kidnap for ransom in extreme cases.”

Yes, travellers now need to keep their wits about them even more so than usual, as a desperate criminal who wouldn’t have used violence in the past may now be more inclined to do so given the lack of opportunity currently presented to them.

This includes expatriates located in a country for business or study reasons, says Cook: “If you are living in a country for work or educational reasons and that country has seen a large number of job losses and an economic downturn, an increase in crime is likely. It’s important to remember expatriates and travellers are perceived as wealthy in poorer countries, which increases your chance of becoming a target.”

2. Technology risks

Technology has made travelling easier for both leisure and business travellers, but has it also created new travel risks?

“Technology can either help or hinder you as a traveller,” says Cook. “Yes, you can use it to protect yourself and your assets, but it can also be used against you. Cybercriminals are quick to adapt and often orchestrate their crimes during current events like COVID-19 to capitalise on the fear and uncertainty of travellers.”

COVID-19 has already been used as an ‘in’ for cybercriminals to target vulnerable people in their own homes through scams like phishing, fake news and texts, as well as via Netflix payment alerts to gain access to networks, personal data, and finances. This means it’s even more important to be aware of fraud risks when travelling during the coronavirus pandemic – especially if you’re a business or education traveller and confidential company data could be at stake.

“If you’re travelling for business or study reasons, you need to be aware of the potential increase in cybercrime, and companies and travel risk managers need to prepare their travelling population for new travel risks.

“This should include special training and up to date information, and the provision of protected hardware and appropriate detection software. Plus, they need to ensure your software is able to identify and mitigate hostile approaches and ensure the potential access to corporate networks is limited.”

Man on street wearing face mask

How to minimise risk when travelling during the coronavirus pandemic

During COVID-19, it’s now not only essential for you to complete a pre-travel COVID-19 risk assessment of the destination before you leave home, but you should also think about potential risks that could arise during your travels and have solutions in place to deal with them.

“Even if you are visiting a destination you and your fellow leisure travellers or business colleagues have visited frequently pre-pandemic, it’s important to acknowledge that the risk environment could have changed,” says Cook.

“Do not assume things are the same as pre-COVID-19.”

If you are visiting a hotel you have stayed in many times before and never had any issues with theft, you should not assume this will be the case now. It is possible the hotel staff have been placed on reduced hours as a result of COVID-19 and may have lost significant income as a result. Sadly, this may leave them desperate enough to steal from guests to survive.

“You always need to know what vaccinations and visas you need (if any) for your intended destination/s, but during COVID-19, you also need to assess any additional health or security risks, and if your accommodation and transport options are safe and secure.”

Rodger Cook’s top 3 COVID-19 travel security and safety tips

  1. Plan for a new normal
    “Your go-to way of travelling may no longer be safe. For example, in the past, opting to take a taxi to your accommodation may have been safe, but it may not be in this current environment. Use a driver from a reputable service and take extra care of your belongings moving through airports and also in your accommodation.”

  2. Maintain a low profile
    “You should always look to maintain a low profile whether you’re travelling for work or play. You should also limit displays of wealth by leaving expensive jewellery, clothes or tech items at home. There is a chance the environment around you has changed in recent times, and it’s important you understand that attracting attention as a traveller is likely to create risks and impact your safety.”

  3. Establish and monitor patterns of normalcy
    “If you have been to the destination before, you should aim to understand what has changed since your last visit. If it’s a new location, you should look for and monitor changes to everyday activities. Are there more people than normal around hotel lobbies? Are there a lot of people loitering in the streets? Asking these questions can help you understand any potential risks.”
Woman in airport wearing face mask

How to plan for travel emergencies during COVID-19

For the vast majority of travellers, trips away from home will be uneventful and incidents won’t arise. However, it doesn’t matter if you’re going on a holiday or travelling for work reasons, we recommend always having a strategy in place for emergency situations. This plan should include who you need to communicate with and how you’ll communicate with them should an emergency event arise.

“As a leisure traveller or someone responsible for education or business travellers, it’s your job to think about these things ahead of time,” says Cook. “In the instance of an emergency – whether it’s medical- or security-related – how will you or those in your care get the help and support needed? What tools can protect you?”

The importance of technology in a crisis

We live in a highly connected world, which comes in handy during an emergency. Should something go wrong when you’re travelling overseas, you can use technology to link you to the appropriate service provider in seconds.

“During a critical event, it is imperative your support staff or those responsible for the safety of others are able to use all available means to locate and communicate with you on the ground,” explains Cook.

In some emergency events, communications infrastructure may be severely damaged (such as in a cyclone or hurricane) or overloaded (such as during a terror attack). This may mean direct phone calls or SMS won’t function, but there is possibly enough bandwidth to send and receive a WhatsApp message or similar.

“Having multiple forms of communication gives you and those responsible for travellers the best chance to communicate with people who can help and know their whereabouts.”

In most instances, a smartphone is sufficient to allow for tracking, communicating and supporting travellers and expatriates. If you believe the destination you or those you’re responsible for will require satellite phones, specialist tracking devices, secure computers or basic handphones, it’s important to ensure this specialist technology is available if and when needed.

World Travel Protection: our travel risk management solution

It is always important for all travellers to have access, support and information at their fingertips. Our team at World Travel Protection provides travellers like you or those in your care with 24/7 emergency assistance for when medical, travel and security emergencies arise. Plus, our Travel Risk Management Tools allow us to track, communicate with and inform travellers about relevant risks when and as needed.

“Our World Travel Protection tools enable travellers like you or those you’re responsible for to prepare pre-departure and equips them with the tech they need to identify potential risks and get help if they need it,” says Cook. “This helps ensure they stay safe when navigating the age-old travel security risks and the new risks COVID-19 has created.”

Access to our Travel Assist Management Portal and Travel Assist App is available to all our corporate travel customers.  

To learn more about how our World Travel Protection team can help you or your company navigate the silent travel risks of COVID-19, schedule a demo of our Travel Risk Management Tools by filling out the form below or emailing us on enquiries@worldtravelprotection.com.