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Taking Travel Risks

On March 10 I got an e-mail from Tamar Cassidy, owner of Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic. It read: “Are you still OK to travel?”. I was booked for a long-awaited week at their mammalwatchers lodge in Sangha National Park starting March 24. Four other tourists from Europe had confirmed as well and we were all still willing to go despite the conditions for international travel worsening by the day. People around me said “You surely don’t want to go there now, their health system is appalling”. But my thoughts were – I wasn’t carrying the virus, the virus had not arrived in the Central African Republic yet and they worry about worse things there anyway.

Dzanga Bai, one of the highlights of Sangha NP

The biggest new risk that I saw was not being able to get back home afterwards: the park is such an isolated place and the Central African Republic in general gets very few international flights. But what would be the damage if I had to stay there or in a neighbouring country? I would miss work for a few weeks, but I surely wouldn’t be fired and they’d probably find it a good story. I would need to pay for my own stay abroad and transport back home, but that’s always the case when you travel. Worst case I’d loose all my yearly holidays and travel budget in one go.

By March 18, we did not need to decide anymore as someone had done it for us and closed Sangha NP. The reason was to “minimize the potential risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic to the people and great apes”. I felt mostly sad for the owners of the lodge, who have been running a succesful business in a country that for years has coloured red in foreign travel advisories with a warning against all travel. And I pitied their employees and those of Sangha National Park, as no tourists means no income.

Dutch Travel Advisory for the Central African Republic, before and during the pandemic

Preparing a trip to an expensive lodge in a far corner of the Central African Republic would be enough for most people to set alarm bells ringing, even outside of a pandemic. It’s not difficult to find horror stories: “Large areas of the country are controlled by armed groups who regularly kidnap, injure, and/or kill civilians”, malaria is endemic and the leading cause of death, and the country has "the second lowest level of human development, ranking 188th out of 189 countries”. At a closer look however, you’ll see that violence is most likely in the northern part of the country that borders Chad. Yes, there is a good possibility of contracting malaria but there are precautions that you can take. And widespread poverty does not per definition exclude tourism (as shown by also lowly ranked Gambia).

When I compare my risk appetite in 2020 with that from 20 years ago, a lot of boundaries have shifted: being a seasoned traveller makes you more comfortable with taking risks than the average person. As quoted from a recent NY Times article: “For the most part, we know that travel experience is related to perceptions of risk, and that the more people travel, the more they are exposed to different levels of risk and that they feel more equipped to be able to deal with it. So, their self-efficacy goes up and therefore their perception of risk goes down and their willingness to travel goes up.” 

I think this is a health warning

I felt (and still feel) at ease regarding to travelling to Sangha NP. I had bought malaria pills (not a thing I usually do as malaria risks are often overstated), I booked a one night stay in Nairobi beforehand to lower the chances of missing the flight to CAR and subsequent charter flight to Sangha, I relied upon the lodge to arrange my visa instead of trying to obtain one myself. I do not worry anymore about transferring large sums of money to foreign bank accounts - I'd rather give the money directly to the local business than hiring a European broker. I do not use traditional travel & cancellation insurances, as I find solely protection against ultra-high medical costs (including repatriation) is enough given my financial situation.

In general, and speaking from experience, my personal top Travel Risk Management tips would be:

  • Inform yourself – there are so many resources available for travellers nowadays, varying from official statistics to first hand accounts of other travellers. When you learn from others that have been in the same situation, it is easier to reduce the probability of a risk from happening.
  • Do your own risk assessments – only you can value what the possible consequence of a trip to XYZ is worth measured against your health, your finances, your relationship with relatives.  
  • Develop your life skills – you’ll fare better travelling when you have acquired decent life skills such as the use of foreign languages, budgeting, assertiveness, perseverance and problem-solving. I also have learned that my professional work has helped me with this, and vice versa that travelling has helped my professional career.

Els - 10 May 2020

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Durian 11 May 2020

In case you want to know, the picture of health warning broad is in Laos language and it is about tuberculosis, encouraging people who have fever for 3 weeks to visit hospital. All medical expenses to cure tuberculosis are free and supported by the government.

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero 11 May 2020

I also have a few trip cancellations because of the pandemic, one of which was even a China trip for February. The week leading to the trip was troublesome as it was the time when the rest of China was following the Wuhan lockdown. Still wanted to go until I got the message from the accoms we would staying in that I was better cancel. The story got published here:

BUT, in the end, I found myself stuck in the island of Siquijor -- I'm now on day 61 here and already have a good collection of sunset photos. Hopefully can go back home after the 15th if there are no more extensions on the quarantines. The island is home to one of the baraque churches nominated as an extension to the world heritage-listed churches of the Philippines, the church of Lazi. Totally in support of any future effort to finally forward the nomination :)

Michael Ayers 10 May 2020

Great post, Els! Like you, I feel that many things that people often worry about, "official" government travel warnings, insurance, etc. are mostly a waste of time or money.

I would love to see CAR someday, perhaps a good location for the first post-pandemic Meetup? ;-)

Nan 10 May 2020

Sorry to hear you had to cancel.

It's hard to fathom why a country that has malaria as #1 cause of death (10% of the population seem to contract it each year, roughly 1% die each year) will cease operation due to Corona. Even more so when you consider their average age is (18) and their life expectancy (55). They are squarely outside the risk area.

Regarding risky travel, I am probably more worried than you, but less worried than the average. Questions I always ask myself:
* Is my life or is my money in danger. The latter I can cope with.
* Can I move freely if I behave rationally? I can live with no go areas and I will duly research where those are. But I wouldn't want to be locked down in the hotel.
* Can I rationally make the case to my mum that it's safe and that the picture in the media is overblown.

Final words re travel insurance: They rarely cover the cases that I would need them to cover (airline broke, country closed). Health insurance is mandatory, though. As is paying flights with a credit card as default insurance. And booking everything else as late possible (hotels potentially same day).

PS: Betting this will be one of those discussion inciting posts again :D