Staying put

Anyone on holiday at the Riu Bellevue Park Hotel in Sousse last week had a terrible experience. If they were lucky enough to escape with their lives, they would have been anxious to get out of Tunisia as quickly as possible. Those staying in nearby hotels must have had similar thoughts – get home as quickly as you can.

But is that wise?

On this occasion, the terrorists were either amateurs or maybe did not want to inflict the maximum possible damage, knowing they had already done enough to destroy Tunisia’s tourism business. Had they really wanted to cause carnage, a bomb or mass shooting at Sousse airport on Saturday would surely have done the trick. Even if security at the airport had been beefed up, with hundreds of people queuing desperately for flights out of the country, there would have been plenty of opportunity.

When a country is hit by terrorism, it is a completely understandable reaction to try to leave as quickly as possible. Terrorists know that and they know that airports are difficult to protect, particularly when they are struggling to cope with a huge influx of desperate travellers.

Staying put, at least until the dust settles, is often the safest option.

The real danger in Egypt

Since the Arab Spring, European tour operators have been kept on tenterhooks by their governments about whether they would be allowed to continue sending tourists to Egypt. Some countries banned all travel, some to certain areas whilst bans were lifted and re-imposed without co-ordination between governments. Now, Egypt is slowly coming back on to the “all clear” list throughout Europe and yet, the most serious risk to the lives of foreign tourists is just as great as it has ever been.

Yesterday, at least 33 people were killed outside Sharm el Sheikh when a bus carrying tourists collided with another bus. There have been at least five deadly coach crashes in the tourist areas of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada in the last few years. Egyptian roads are bad and the local standard of driving is worse. It would take any government a long time to improve Egypt’s shocking level of road fatalities – but the current Egyptian government could solve the specific problem of accidents in these two tourist areas quite easily.

Both Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada are newly-created towns. The roads are in relatively good condition and, since the towns only exist for tourism, there is much less traffic than in the crowded cities of Cairo and Alexandria. Most tourists arrive at the airport, get transferred the short distance to their hotels by taxi and then, if they leave the hotels at all, do so for short trips by taxi or, maybe, a slightly longer coach excursion. There are only a handful of roads used. It would be very easy to install almost blanket-policing of these routes and stop drivers speeding or over-taking on blind corners (the apparent cause of most accidents). Once a few coachdrivers had lost their licenses or operators been fined heavily, the message would get home.

Egypt’s tourist industry has had a lot to contend with, much of which has been outside its control, but the government can solve this problem quite easily. 

There must be no more coach crashes in Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada.

Kenya and how to mishandle a travel advisory

A few months ago, the FCO issued a warning against all but essential travel to parts of the Kenyan coast including the city of Mombasa due to concern about an increase in the risk of terrorism. They have now followed this up with an additional warning against travel to Lamu.

The Kenyan government reacted with fury to the first warning, accusing Britain of over-reacting. In the weeks since the first warning at least eighty Kenyans have been killed in attacks near to the regions highlighted by the travel bans. The US, France and Australia, amongst others, have also imposed warnings or restrictions on travel to parts of Kenya.

Unfortunately, terrorism is not new and governments in many popular tourist destinations have to work hard at both containing the threat and convincing foreign governments that their countries are safe to visit.

Egypt is a hugely popular tourist destination which has faced travel bans in the last few years. The original bans were due to unrest following the Arab Spring revolution and whilst most countries have lifted those bans, concern has remained over Sharm el Sheikh which is in an isolated area and potentially open to terrorist attack. Russia and Germany recently banned travel to the region but Britain did not take immediate action. Instead, FCO security specialists were invited by the Egyptian government to survey the region for themselves and assess the risks and the measures that were being taken to counter the danger. The experts returned to London satisfied and no travel ban was imposed. The Germans and Russians have now rescinded their bans.

That seems to be a text-book way of handling the problem. Sadly, it is not a method copied by the Kenyans. Their response to the outbreak of terrorism near Lamu and the British advisory has been to launch a laughable tit-for-tat warning for Kenyans not to travel via Heathrow Airport because of terrorist threats.

The intelligent, measured response versus the clueless.

The Kenyan people and their valuable tourist industry deserve better.


A strange statistic for 9/11

The Americans are known for their dislike of most forms of personal control. Europeans do not enjoy airport security but they tend not to get as heated about it as the Americans, many of whom regard any form of search as a violation of their right to freedom.

On the anniversary of 9/11, rather than being thankful no similar event has taken place, some newspapers have published figures to show that increased airport security has actually cost far more lives than were lost on 9/11.

The argument is that many people find the delays and fuss of airport security so annoying that they prefer to drive rather than fly for short distances. Driving is much more dangerous than flying and there has been an increase in road deaths since 9/11.

The study appears reputable and there could well be a genuine connection between the increased road-deaths and extra security – though proving exact figures is surely impossible.

The one thing that is indisputable – and which has really never been publicised very much in the US – is that if US airport security had been up to even the pre-9/11 standards of European airports, the hijackers would probably not have got near an aircraft.

The Guardian’s shrewd move over Miranda?

It looks as if The Guardian was really rather clever in the way it handled the Miranda situation. They have let it be known that Mr Miranda was carrying sensitive information from Germany to his partner in Rio de Janeiro who was, presumably, about to use it in another expose. That information had not been obtained honestly and a number of security organisations would be anxious to get hold of it before it was leaked causing further damage.

If you change planes in a country, even if you do not go through Passport Control, you might still be subject to checks by Immigration staff. Passenger lists are scanned more carefully than you might imagine. It is not unusual for people to run into trouble when they land in a country where they might not be welcome but think that because they are only changing planes, they have nothing to fear. A few months ago, a South African doctor was held in Dubai on his way back from a trip to a wedding in Canada due to a medical malpractice claim that he thought he had escaped from some years ago. He seemed to think that it was safe to fly via Dubai as long as he did not enter the country officially. 

Using a journalist’s partner to carry sensitive information and deliberately transiting the country that had something to lose should the information be made public would be madness. The Guardian even paid for the ticket so they had obviously planned the operation carefully and provided another helpful pointer for the security services, should they have needed one.

Presumably, any sensitive information was passed from Germany by someone else using a much less obvious route. Mr Miranda surely had nothing of interest on him but was an extremely useful decoy. The idea that The Guardian could be so naive as to have bought a ticket on such a route for a marked man who was carrying highly valuable information is just laughable. Surely, no one would be so stupid – would they?

US airport security and guns

The Transport Security Administration is one of the most disliked government institutions in the US. They are constantly criticised for the search methods they use at airport security, for the behaviour of their staff and for alleged inefficiencies. No one enjoys airport security checks and the freedom-loving Americans dislike them more than most.

There are regular calls for airport security to be wound down or even scrapped altogether because – so the arguments run – it is not strong enough to stop an organised terrorist attack and the costs of operating it exceed the value of any lives it might save.

It is true that a group of sophisticated terrorists will always be able to find a way to cause damage. They will go for the weakest link and in 2001, it just happened that US airport security for domestic flights was far less stringent than in the rest of the world.

But airport security does not just protect against organised terrorism. There are plenty of individual nutcases out there who would like to make a posthumous name for themselves.

This year, the TSA will remove around 1500 guns from passengers who were about to board a flight. The figure is slightly up on previous years, maybe because of improved detection or maybe there are just more idiots who think it reasonable to carry a gun on an aircraft. Of course, most if not all the people who had these guns had no intention of doing any harm on the aircraft – but it only takes one.

I do not enjoy airport security but scrapping or downgrading security in a country that has weak controls on guns is a recipe for disaster because the unthinkable will happen – just as it did on Friday.

Has anyone a good thing to say about Luton?

Luton Airport used to be such a pleasure. Easy to get to, affordable parking, human scale, a short walk to the plane. How things have changed. The more that’s been invested in the infrastucture the worse the walks, the queues, and the tat seem to get.

And now the money-grubbing. The airport received much negative publicity a couple of years ago when it was the first to introduce a “dropping-off fee” for visitors. And now the gouge continues with the “plastic bag scam”. More than one reader of ours has reported that security staff are being difficult about the size of transparent bags for liquid screening, on occasion refusing bags that are actually given out free at other airports. We have the full story here, but in the meantime it’s worth being up to speed on the what the DoT says, which is simply that the bag should be transparent, re-sealable and approximately 20 cm by 20 cm. If you’ve had grief over this, let us know.

Safe to travel?

For most people, the sole arbiter of whether it is safe to travel to a destination is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. If they mark a country or city as being acceptable for essential travel only then tour operators cancel their tours and insurance companies will refuse to pay any claims for those who do travel there. Until the FCO makes the “no non-essential travel” announcement, you cannot cancel a package holiday and get your money back.

The problem with this is that it is purely a reaction to events which have already happened.  The FCO, and all other governments, are extremely reluctant to stop their citizens going to a country until any trouble has erupted. Of course, by then, it is often too late.

Throughout the Egyptian crisis, the FCO maintained that the Red Sea resorts were safe (much to the relief of tour operators). The only concern seemed to be whether supplies would reach the resorts from strike-bound Cairo. It was said, quite rightly, that there was little chance of local workers rebelling. The only sign of any trouble was an evening raid on a market by Bedouins which was laughed off as trivial. It was also pointed out that the government had placed 800 soldiers near Sharm el Sheikh to guarantee safety.

All that is true but it misses the point. The real danger to the Red Sea resorts is not an uprising of the local Egyptian workers but attack by the Bedouin population. The Bedouins do not regard themselves as part of Egypt and hate the resorts which they feel were built on land stolen from them. Large stretches of the peninsula are, effectively, lawless because the Egyptian government has had to give up any form of control. The Israeli government is seriously worried about a Bedouin uprising (financed by Islamic extremists) and that is why they gave the Egyptians permission to break the Peace Treaty and place 800 soldiers in the demilitarised area. There is a genuine concern that the Bedouins could take advantage of any weakness in the Egyptian government to start some form of serious rebellion.

The Red Sea resorts are perfectly safe at the moment and are sealed-off from the Bedouin lands. Any traveller would be wise to look for reports of Bedouin activity, however small, because it could mark the beginning of something more serious. And you can bet the FCO and other governments would only advise against travel after the event.

Marrakech is another destination I would have some concerns about visiting. The troubles have yet to hit Morocco in any significant way but all the ingredients are there. Marrakech is a large city, not just a tourist resort, and many of the hotels have no form of security. If I had been staying in one of the large hotels in Cairo during the main part of the rioting, I would have felt reasonably safe. I would not feel at all safe in similar circumstances in Marrakech. With so much happening in other Arab countries, I would be inclined to avoid Marrakech until things calm down a little. On the other hand, even though Cairo is still officially out-of-bounds according to the FCO, I would be quite happy to go there today.

Wherever you travel, you should do a little research about local political issues. If you want to avoid possible trouble, you cannot rely on the FCO because they will only warn you about what has already happened.

Why politicians should be exempt from airport security

No one enjoys going through airport security, and recent enhancements to the system in the US have caused a lot of anguished public debate about the manner in which the checks are done. However, the following comments from Jim Clayburn, the Assistant House Democratic Leader, deserve special mention for their sheer selfishness.

Commenting to Fox News on the Arizona shooting tragedy, Mr Clayburn said that lessons could be learnt and that specifically -

“We have had some incidents where TSA employees think Congresspeople should be treated like everybody else…we need to take a step back and see how the TSA interacts with members of Congress.”

So, a madman tries to kill a member of Congress and succeeds in killing and injuring several other people outside a shopping centre and the main lesson to be learnt is that politicians should be waived through airport security without checks. Mr Clayburn’s comments add a whole new meaning to the term “self-serving”.

US Airport Security

Have you ever arrived home from the US to discover that the contents of your suitcase have been inspected by US security officials? Luggage at US airports, and most other major airports around the world.  is routinely scanned before loading and, especially in the US, it is also subject to additional random checks. These checks can be annoying but we accept them in the name of safety. So, how could an American citizen of Egyptian birth, be arrested when he arrived at Cairo on a flight from New York last week when it was discovered his case contained two pistols, 250 bullets and 11 knives?

We accept mistakes can happen – though this is a fairly major mistake – but the response of the US authorities is far more worrying. Their explanation appears to be limited to stating that it is not illegal in the US to carry firearms in checked luggage.

Security lapses occur anywhere, though too many seem to be occurring in the US, but it is the lazy attitude of the authorities that is most disturbing. Nothing is ever their fault.

Just imagine the huge fuss the Americans would make if a passenger arrived in New York on an Egyptair flight from Cairo with the same items in his luggage. There would be hell to pay both in terms of massively increased checks on Egyptair aircraft and their passengers and wild tabloid headlines about bad security outside the US.

However, when the Americans are caught napping, we are meant to turn a blind eye.

Maybe we should remember that part of the reason for the success of 9/11 was the fact that US airport security was so much worse than in most other countries. Despite all the officiousness of US security staff, has anything actually changed?