When Peril Lurks In Overseas Travel

Just one year after a blinding storm claimed the lives of 12 climbers on Mount Everest came the chilling news that at least seven more people perished there in May. Last year's tragic episode had been described in numerous television shows, magazine articles, and in Jon Krakauer's bestselling personal account, Into Thin Air. But instead of discouraging people from wanting to ascend the world's highest peak, the publicity has had the opposite effect. "It is that very human allure of testing yourself," says Richard Weiss, president of Mountain Travel-Sobek (800 227-2384), an adventure-travel company based in El Cerrito, Calif. The outfitter offers a strenuous hiking trip to Everest Base Camp (maximum elevation 18,192 feet) but no climbs all the way to the summit (29,028 feet).

Unfortunately, you need not be a climber in the Himalayas to encounter harrowing situations when you travel. Businesspeople who flock to certain oil-rich countries and newly democratized nations may face the risk of terrorism or kidnapping simply because they represent an American company. Some travelers could end up in war zones or political hot spots because they're visiting relatives in the region. And at times, even ordinary vacationers may become targets. Petty thievery and other crimes are rampant on some of the famous tourist beaches in Rio de Janeiro and CancPound n, for instance. So it's best to spend some time thinking about safety before you leave home.

A particular destination may be deemed safe--but some of the ways to get there may not be. You'll want to quiz colleagues in Cambodia and Egypt, for example, to find out which train routes might be targeted by criminals. If you're renting a car in a country such as Turkey, ask your hotel's concierge which roads are safest. And try to avoid local airlines in China, Central Africa, India, and the Andes since they have poor safety records.

BANDITS. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For instance, the real risk on a safari in Kenya may come not from lions but from bandits in the northern part of the country. Mike Ackerman, managing director of the Ackerman Group, an international security consulting firm in Miami, was involved in a case last year in which a couple of American businessmen at a Colombian resort accidentally wandered into a guerrilla camp while hiking. The two were eventually released.

Of course, travel to and around most areas of the developed world is generally safe and predictable, says Robert Young Pelton, author of Fielding's The World's Most Dangerous Places ($19.95, Fielding Worldwide). But even there, potential hazards abound for visitors who drop their guard, so follow the same common-sense principles you adhere to at home. You're not likely to wander around deserted urban streets after dark in the U.S., so there's no reason to change your tune just because you're on holiday in, say, Western Europe.

Wherever you travel, try your best to blend in and camouflage your status as a tourist. Dress conservatively, avoid flashy jewelry or pricey cameras, and try to learn some of the local language, if only to say thank you and excuse me, says Pelton. And if you're going to spend a lot of time on foreign soil, register with the American embassy or consulate.

It's equally critical to familiarize yourself with a country's laws and customs. If, for example, you're visiting a fundamentalist area in the Middle East, you should be respectful of their religious values and keep strong opinions to yourself. Pelton recommends asking permission before snapping photographs of men--and never taking pictures of women, the infirm, or the elderly. You should also avoid blowing your nose in public, eating while walking around, or squeezing a Muslim's hand too hard when sharing a handshake.

You're much more likely to face potential health-related hazards than political or cultural risks, however. Beyond the usual "don't drink the water" warnings that apply to various places, the Centers for Disease Control's cdc Travel Information site on the World Wide Web can help you fend off serious medical problems when visiting a particular area (www.cdc.gov/travel/travel. html). At the site, you'll find comprehensive vaccination requirements, be alerted to outbreaks of disease in a given region (e.g., meningitis in the Dominican Republic, meningoccoccal disease in Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania), and tap into a variety of geographic health recommendations. The cdc also offers an information hotline (404 332-4559).

There are several other free and useful Web sites that can help travelers stay out of harm's way when they're globetrotting. Fielding's Web site (www.fielding travel.com) lets you search the data in the Dangerous Travel book at no cost. At the State Dept.'s Web site, you can access travel advisories and consular information sheets. (The information is also available by calling 202 647-5225.) The State Dept.'s daily incidence-report databases are particularly valuable. Typing in the search word "India" recently yielded reports of a grenade attack in a Srinagar marketplace that wounded six pedestrians and a land mine that killed five policemen in the state of Andhra Pradesh, supposedly at the hands of left-wing extremists.

Armed with such information, you can then phone the U.S. consulate or embassy in the country you are planning to visit to help you put the risks into proper perspective. "Call the American Embassy in Algeria and they'll say: `Don't you dare come over here,"' says Pelton. "Call [the Algerian embassy in the U.S.], and they'll say: `No problem."'

BALANCING ACT. If you want even more detail about a destination, you can purchase a variety of risk-assessment reports from Kroll Associates and Pinkerton. Kroll charges $9.95 for a two-page fax advisory outlining the latest news, advice on renting a car, taking public transportation, and other safety suggestions in any of nearly 300 cities. An example: "Dozens of individuals in Lima [Peru] have been targeted by what have come to be termed `quickie kidnappings,' spontaneous abductions in which victims are held for a few hours while criminals rob them of their wallets and valuables and/or force them to empty their bank accounts."

Kidnapping, in fact, is a major problem for businesspeople who spend a good deal of time in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, and other high-risk countries. As a result, companies often purchase kidnap ransom/extortion insurance for their employees from aig, Chubb, and a number of other large insurance companies. The cost varies according to the country and how much time you spend there. Richard Johnson, a vice-president at Seitlin & Co., a Miami-based insurance broker (305 591-0090), says someone who does business in certain Latin American countries one week a month might take out a $1 million policy for about $2,500. That can rise to as much as $100,000 for an exec who is in Colombia for the better part of a year. The policy covers the ransom and the cost of hiring a security firm to help spring you.

Too often, however, ill-prepared and over-confident adventure travelers bring peril upon themselves. "There is this illusion that if you hire a guide and pay this enormous amount of money, you will be safe," says Richard Bangs, editor-in-chief of Microsoft's Mungo Park online magazine. "It is just that, an illusion."

If you're going to go with an adventure tour group, quiz them on a number of crucial issues. How long have they been in business? Is this the first time they've offered this itinerary? Do they have liability insurance? What kind of emergency procedures are in place should a rescue be necessary? You'll also want to know if they have had any fatalities. Finally, ask to speak with the guide who will be leading your trek.

You should also judge these companies by what they ask you, such as: What other climbs have you made that qualify you for this expedition? If you're not up to the task at hand, a reputable operator should say so and turn you down. Indeed, the best prescription for safe travel may be knowing your limits.