How To Spot A Dangerous Political Situation While Traveling

Political unrest is always a possibility when traveling to countries with unstable governments.

For many developing or troubled countries, tourism is a major industry and important element of their economies. Visitors are often swayed by the promise of bargain prices or exotic locales advertised in slickly-designed brochures. But even the best publicity campaign for foreign tourists cannot cure an unstable government or motivated opposition forces. Traveling in some countries can mean restrictions on movement and extraordinary security measures by your hosts.

Many people already have some idea of what a politically dangerous country looks like. Foreign militaries control key checkpoints or an evil dictator keeps the general population in a constant state of fear. The country's own military may also be in control of the civilian government offices, or organized rebel forces hide in the countryside waiting for the chance to overthrow their rulers. These scenarios might make a great movie someday, but do not tell the entire truth.

Foreign tourists may enjoy days basking in the sun on a beautiful sand beach, followed by nights in some of the most exciting nightclubs in the world and completely forget they are staying in Beirut, Lebanon. Others may find themselves locked in their hotels at night for fear of a criminal element and urged to stay in approved areas. Welcome to Jamaica. The reputation of a country may or may not reflect its actual political stability. What matters more is the current atmosphere and the possibility of a situation reaching a breaking point. Here are some ways to gauge the possibility of political unrest while traveling in foreign countries:

1. Curfews for the general population. Some countries will strongly urge hotels and resorts to protect visitors through curfews, but this is often motivated by criminal activity, not political unrest. If the general population of an unstable country receives a dusk-to-dawn curfew order, it's a sign that authorities want to control the movement of opposition forces or rebels. Your host may or may not share this information with you, but it's always safest to obey local curfews and contact the US consulate or embassy for official changes in travel conditions.

2. Local newspapers and television. Many media outlets are state-controlled in smaller countries prone to unrest. If a situation has been brewing for a while, such as a worker's strike or general protest, the local papers may have editorials or recent stories with insights into the future of the situation. If the government controls the media, the fact that you see nothing about the protest march outside your hotel window should tell you something is not quite right. Some anti-government groups will publish their own newspapers, detailing their grievances and calling for action. Ask local residents if these protests are supported by the people or are primarily sponsored by fringe elements.

3. Heightened security measures at airports and checkpoints. If you notice additional scrutiny of your passport or visa, this may be a sign of a political situation. Foreign tourists are often kidnapped by rebel forces for political leverage, so government officials tend to keep a closer eye on foreign guests during times of political crisis. Several years ago, a popular resort for divers in the Phillipines was invaded by rebel forces and many of the guests were either executed or held hostage for many months. During similar times of political unrest, security for Westerners is almost always increased exponentially.

4. CIA and State Department guides. The CIA maintains a publicly-accessible website which gives travelers an overview of a country's political and economic conditions. Countries with notoriously unstable regimes or history of political unrest receive particular attention on this website. Before planning a trip to an exotic location, it pays to do some research on the current state of political affairs in that country.

The US State Department also maintains a list of countries currently facing political or economic turmoil. If the situation deteriorates or becomes especially dangerous for American travelers, the State Department may issue a traveling advisory. This is an important thing to know before setting foot in any foreign country, especially those with a known conflict with Western governments.

5. General demeanor of local residents. A lot of credible information can be gathered simply by observing the local residents and business owners in action. In times of political stability, most local establishments are very eager to attract foreign visitors. The streets are filled with the usual hustle and bustle of shoppers and traffic and tourists. But during times of political uncertainty, local residents may remain indoors to learn the latest news. Conversations with foreigners are guarded or non-existent. Shop owners may conduct their business with little enthusiasm, or change their hours of operation suddenly. Some residents may even become hostile towards foreigners from specific countries. This is all part of the confusion and fear which precedes actual social unrest. Any sudden change in the local demeanor towards tourists should be taken as an early warning sign to tread carefully and avoid unknown territory.

© High Speed Ventures 2011