The Paradoxes of Mitigating Risk in Higher-Risk Locations

Exploring the inherent paradoxes involved with managing risk when travelling in complex and higher-risk locations.

5 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 11 Sep 2023

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This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 11 Sep 2023 and was updated on 07 Feb 2024

There are a number of interesting paradoxes associated with mitigating risk when travelling to higher-risk locations. In this article I’ll explore a number of these paradoxes.

Risk mitigation can destroy the travel experience

One of the challenges you’ll face when travelling to higher-risk locations is the limitations placed on your activities by your approach to managing risk.

At one end of the risk management spectrum, you’ll insulate yourself completely from risk. You’ll arrange an airport transfer through your five-star hotel’s limousine service. Once at your hotel, you’ll pretty much stay there. You’ll eat in the hotel. You’ll buy a souvenir in the hotel gift shop. You may go to the occasional meeting outside of your hotel, but you’ll be driven there and back in an air-conditioned limousine. When it comes time to leave, you’ll jump back into the hotel’s limousine for the drive to the airport.

You’ve been there, but you haven’t really been there.

If you’ve travelled to higher-risk locations on business, you’ve probably followed this exact travel profile. Many travellers are perfectly okay with this approach and have no desire to take a stroll around town. Many companies strictly enforce such measures as a condition of travel to higher-risk locations.

At the other end of the risk management spectrum, you’ll apply no risk mitigation at all. Perhaps you don’t know how to mitigate risk. Or perhaps you know how but choose not to do so. Effectively, you’re either knowingly or unknowingly placing yourself at risk. Both of these approaches are potentially problematic. Anyone taking the former approach could be called ignorant and irresponsible. Anyone taking the latter approach could be called reckless.

Overall, I’d argue there’s a middle ground between hiding in your hotel and applying no mitigation measures at all. This middle ground would involve the traveller applying common sense and a few basic risk mitigation practices, allowing them to leave the relative safety of their hotel and venture outside to see the town.

Of course, some travellers may still be held back by fear.

Fear is healthy but often misdirected

Fear is an entirely healthy feeling to have in higher-risk locations. A healthy dose of fear can motivate you to be cautious. The question is whether a traveller’s feelings of fear are appropriate to their situation and the threats in their location.

Often, travellers read a few anecdotal reports about bad things happening in the location. As a result, they are afraid of those same things happening to them. In some cases, their fears are warranted. In other cases, they may not be. The challenge for the traveller is that it’s very difficult to take anecdotal reports of incidents and use them to meaningfully interpret the nature of the threat. In fact, it’s possible that their fear of one threat (which may not be a real concern) may distract them from focusing on a more serious threat. In effect, their misguided fear of one threat may make them more vulnerable to another.

It’s worth pointing out that the apparent absence of incidents in a higher-risk location doesn’t always provide meaningful information. Just because US citizens haven’t been kidnapped in Karachi in recent years doesn’t necessarily suggest that there are no groups in Karachi that would kidnap (or kill) a US citizen given the opportunity. Rather, it means that there are relatively few US citizens travelling to Karachi and, when they do travel there, they probably just stay in their hotel and don’t wander around outside.

There’s a key lesson here: In higher-risk locations, the absence of incidents doesn’t always mean an absence of threat and risk. Your presence changes the threat dynamic. In economic terms, when you enter a higher-risk environment you’re providing ‘supply’ in a location where there may already be some ‘demand’.

It’s really hard to actually recognise threats

Another interesting paradox is that the more complex the higher-risk location, the more difficult it will be to recognise threats on the street. Situations that may appear dangerous, may not be dangerous at all. If you misinterpret the situation as dangerous and react poorly, you could actually create a situation that’s dangerous for your safety. In such a situation, you’re the threat.

Most travellers don’t have the necessary skills to determine if they’re under surveillance or if they’re about to be attacked in the street. That said, I would argue that no matter how skilled you think you are in these aspects, you’ll struggle to maintain the same level of awareness when overseas and in an unfamiliar environment as you might be able to apply at home.

In such situations, there may be a tendency for some travellers to become hyper vigilant, which will probably make them stand out more to anyone observing them. They may also be visibly anxious as they try to process what they can see, hear and smell to determine whether there may be a threat to their safety.

In many locations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything that’s happening around you. The sensory load is too high, making it difficult to parse your immediate environment and make sense of the different things happening around you. Adding to the challenge is the fact that many of the things you are seeing, hearing or smelling are new or novel. You may have never experienced these things before. What looks like a threat probably isn’t a threat at all, while the real threats may hover just outside your periphery.

You’ll probably never know.

Uncertainty can lead to paralysis

Combined, the factors above can make a traveller more conservative in their approach and more uncertain when it comes to planning different activities. Without the necessary skills to manage risk in a new and dynamic environment, travellers may either hide away in their hotel or throw caution to the wind in the hope that nothing happens.

The more difficult path is between these two options, where the traveller is sensible and cautious, and takes carefully calculated risks as they go about their activities.

It’s easy to learn the wrong lessons

Of course, many travellers will visit higher-risk locations and not experience any significant issues at all. In doing so, they may learn the wrong lessons. After all, nothing happened to them, so it must be safe. The threat was overhyped. A textbook case of survivorship bias.

I’d caution against this attitude. Instead, take a clinical approach to determining why nothing happened. Were you actually exposed to risks in the locations you visited? Were your mitigation measures effective? Which mitigation measures contributed to your safety?

Believe it or not, luck plays a part

As a final thought, you should always recognise that there will always be an unknowable amount of luck at play when you travel. Rather than being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’, it’s entirely possible that you could have been in the ‘wrong place at the right time’. You may be in a location where there are active threats, but you were fortunate that there were no threats in the immediate vicinity at the time you were there. Also consider the fact that you may have been targeted, but you happened to move on before the threat group could mobilise against you.

My own experience suggests that we can create our own luck as travellers by maintaining a low profile, staying out of local issues, and applying a basic amount of common sense. No amount of counter-surveillance skill can compensate for a friendly smile at the right moment in time.

Wrap up

I’m fascinated by the approaches different people take to assessing and managing risks in higher-risk environments. There are a lot of interesting paradoxes at play here, and there’s definitely scope for more exploration. I’m sure many of you reading this will have your own thoughts on the topic.

Thanks for reading.

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