How to stay safe on a trip

Do research on tour companies and make bookings for activities before reaching your destination

The deaths of three British tourists during a waterfall tour in central Vietnam last week have shone a spotlight on safety issues when it comes to adventure travel as today's travellers seek more extreme outdoor activities.

Sisters Beth Anderson, 24, and Isobel Mackensie Squire, 19, and their friend Christian Sloan, 25, were swept down river and over the Dalanta waterfall in the Dalat Highlands, a popular destination for adventure tourists.

They had hired a guide from Dalat Passion, a licensed tour company, though local officials initially claimed that they were with an unauthorised guide.

The guide told police the trio ignored warnings to stay away from a dangerous whirlpool and were swept away by turbulent waters.

Dalat Passion has since been suspended and investigations are underway to determine whether proper safety precautions and regulations were followed.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Travellers should feel confident asking their tour operators for proof of their licensing and safety information. If they are unable to share, they probably are not the right guides for you.

MS ANITA NGAI, travel booking website Viator's general manager of Asia Pacific

Ms Alicia Seah, director of communications at Dynasty Travel, says that as travellers increasingly go for activities such as trekking, scuba diving and parasailing, safety considerations must be an integral part of planning and managing any successful trip.

And picking the right tour operator is critical. Travel industry experts say travellers should book their tours and activities before they arrive at their destination.

This way, they have time to research the options, check prices, read reviews and ratings of the tour companies, and verify their licences with local guide associations or tourism boards.

A qualified guide will be proficient in the language they are guiding groups in, have completed theory, practical and emergency training, and passed examinations administered by local authorities, such as the tourism board.

A general tour guide licence is valid for three years and must be renewed upon expiry.

Ms Jane Chang, head of marketing communications at Chan Brothers Travel, cautions against making bookings on the ground.

"While the idea of fluidity may seem romantic or carefree, there is a tendency to succumb to uninformed decision-making due to language barriers, sales tactics as well as peer and time pressure," she says.

One of the best and hassle-free ways for travellers to minimise risk is to book tours through established travel agencies which have long- standing relationships with licensed and insured guides who have proven track records, experts say. Agencies such as Chan Brothers Travel also provide 24-hour emergency support for customers.

Guides for tour operators such as Contiki, which specialises in adventure tours for those aged 18 to 35, undergo more than two months of rigorous training to ensure that they are well equipped to attend to all of their customers' needs, from questions about the destination to comprehensive crisis response.

For travellers who are keen to book on the ground or on the go, there are still steps they can take to stay safe.

Travel booking website Viator, owned by TripAdvisor, runs travellers' reviews and any tour operator listed there has been vetted for proper licensing and insurance.

Ms Anita Ngai, Viator's general manager of Asia Pacific, says: "One of the benefits of using a site like Viator is that we've already done a lot of the homework for the traveller."

If travellers do not have access to a site such as Viator, Ms Ngai recommends seeking out a tour referral from a reputable local hotel or tourism office.

"Travellers should feel confident asking their tour operators for proof of their licensing and safety information before booking any tours. If they are unable or unwilling to share, they probably are not the right guides for you,"she adds.

Other warning signs of an irresponsible or improperly licensed operator include the lack of a proper shopfront, prices which are way out of line with other operators offering the same activity - "If it's too affordable, there is probably a reason why," notes Ms Chang - and aggressive sales tactics, including the open recruitment of customers with distinct health conditions for tours labelled as physically challenging.

Travellers should also check the tour capacity, especially on boat tours or cruises, and carefully read the contract and indemnity forms so they are clear about who is responsible for all parts of the venture, including any aspects which have been outsourced.

Ms Seah from Dynasty Travel cautions that while a tour operator may be licensed, some may engage unlicensed local guides to cut costs.

Ultimately, preparation is key.

For an upcoming trip to go horseback riding with nomads in Mongolia, interior designer Tiffany Steel, 32, is relying on online resources and contacts provided by her sister who runs Blue Sky Escapes, a boutique travel agency offering curated tours to exotic destinations such as Peru, Mongolia and Bhutan.

"I normally go online to understand the destination and the culture. I read forums religiously to see what people post about and what I might be interested in. The Internet is your best friend," she says.

While Mr Nico Head, director of Lightfoot Travel, which specialises in personalised luxury tours, agrees that checking out forums and getting recommendations from friends are good ways to minimise the chances of a trip going awry, ultimately, it pays to be street smart.

"Go with your gut instinct. It's not worth risking your safety for an experience."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'How to stay safe on a trip'. Print Edition | Subscribe