What every traveller should know about the Philippines bus hijacking


Yes or No?

If you want to learn the real impact and lessons learnt from the Philippines bus hijacking on the 23 Aug 2010, then you will want to read this article. Specifically we’ll cover the role and impact of the media, the heightened awareness created by the event, wildly varied responses and the impact it has on travelers. After you read this article, you should have a more balanced and informed view of the situation  that will help you determine “Is it safe to travel to the Philippines?”

The media played a pivotal role in the event as it occurred but what is more important is the legacy of the event and how it will influence the future. This may seem obvious but there is more to the story. Due to the fact, there was no attempt or control of the media throughout the incident, not only were live events beamed around the world but thanks to the online video explosion in recent years, this event will be referenced and recalled unlike similar incidents for years to come. Some commentators have already predicted that the catastrophic assault will become the global doctrine for military and police forces on “how not to assault a hostage filled bus.”

Conventional media broadcasting coupled with the greater penetration of social media has guaranteed that this event has affected far more people than any similar, historical example. Hong Kong is a very interconnected society with high technology ownership and usage. So much so, this event was broadcast live across the country in public areas on screens ranging from private hand phones to large building size public screens in the middle of shopping centers. Entire shopping districts stood in silence and starred as the tragic events unfolded. In this case, it would be a better question to ask “who did not see it?” This tragedy has cut the very core of a country’s social heart on a new and disturbing level.

Few people who travel to the Philippines, particularly leisure, are fully aware of the threats. Widespread access to firearms, internal low-level conflicts, violent crimes, targeting of specific ethnic groups and many more. However. much like a shark attack report, that grips every swimmer with dread and the potential to over react to the real threat, this event has amplified the minority while overshadowing the majority. You are still at greater risk of a bus crash in the Philippines than being boarded by a hostile gunman and shot dead. Fact! It seems that the elements of the government are equally less aware.

The Hong Kong government’s total and specific ban to the Philippines is baseless and more political than measured. The current government advisory indicates that countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Pakistan have “signs of threat” and recommends monitoring and caution. Whereas the Philippines, the only country in this category, is labelled “severe threat” and advice states “avoid all travel.” This act has brought the well meaning government advisory intent into disrepute. There is a social demand to respond to this event but over stating and manipulating the advisory destroys the confidence and use of such advisories. It will not be held credible or trusted in the future. It also forces other nationalities to question just how emotive, censored or adversely influence are their own government advisories.

There is a bigger concern, unrealized by many as a result of the government advisory. Many, if not all insurance policies base their assessment and policy standard on government threat levels. It is a far from effective, let alone perfect, approach but the prevailing practice none-the-less. This means, that if a government declares a travel ban to location or country, all travel policies tied to that threat level are affected. This means, there are people traveling, or potentially traveling with a null-and-void agreement or suspended travel insurance policy. How many travelers or corporate travel managers know about this affect?

When terrorists attacked the London underground and buses, how many countries banned all travel to London or the UK? When thousands were killed and displaced due to an earthquake in Sichuan province (China) how many countries banned all travel to China? When terrorists attacked a hotel in central Jakarta (Indonesia) how many countries banned all travel to Indonesia? Hong Kong didn’t, why now? Even the Mumbai attacks were treated more rationally than this event. This is due largely due to media coverage, social impact, depth and breadth of community affected and the violence of action witnessed live.

This event puts us all at risk. Criminals and terrorists calculate how affective the emergency services, police and military will be in countering or stopping their plans. They have to make an educated guess unless they have firm evidence on just how competent these positive blockers are in fulfilling their duties. Everyone now knows just how capable the police were in this instance. Others, who may have been deterred in acting in a similar fashion, will potentially be embolden to act now they know they have a greater chance of success. Conversely, those that have been looking for “a way” to get their issue heard and grab the headlines, now have pre-tested marketing plan laid out for them. How many incidents involving buses, attacks on tourists or violent crimes will we now see in the Philippines and around the world? Following the Mumbai attacks, we saw at least 3 similar attacks and many others prevented. Similar threats remain a concern for many to this day and beyond.

There is no reason to cancel all travel to the Philippines for either business or leisure purposes. Some will cancel travel plans because of this misunderstanding, unnecessarily. Social media and conventional media are great tools but the popularity of any given issue should not determine the gravity of response. A single violent man created this situation and his actions alone lead to the loss of life and suffering, not the police. No one is perfect and for the most part the emergency services within the Philippines do the very best they can with what they have but they do have shortfalls and you need to be aware and prepared for the consequences. Governments have the interest and concerns of the entire population in mind when they set any benchmarks. Broad-spectrum advice will never suit the few, the prepared or special circumstances. The true risk to travelers is based on the individual’s preparation, activity while traveling, support available, ability to respond to events and location visited. If assessed specifically and consistently, you too will determine that travel to the Philippines remains no more/less risky than it was prior before this event. Despite what some may have lead you to believe. Travel safely!

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About Tony Ridley
Travel health, safety, security and risk management expert.

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