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International SOS: 2020 Travel Risk Outlook and Top 10 Threats

Geopolitical concerns are number one on the list of top 10 health and security risks.

International SOS World Map Natural Disasters
Natural disasters and extreme weather events where International SOS supported affected organizations (2017-2019)

International SOS, a medical and travel-security assistance company, has released its Travel Risk Outlook 2020, a forecast detailing concerns for the current year. As part of the forecast, the organization named the "Top 10 Health and Security Risks 2020" -- as selected by the Travel Management Council, a panel of 35 experts representing health, security and safety fields relevant to travel and work abroad. The risks, detailed here, are those facing travel managers and their organizations:

  1. Risks borne from geopolitical shifts -- potentially affecting the ability to cross borders;
  2. Mental health issues -- on which corporations will place heightened importance;
  3. Physical health -- as organizations become more proactive in protecting travelers;
  4. Cybercrime -- which is likely to grow;
  5. Climate change -- which will exacerbate the occurrence of environmental disruptions;
  6. Infectious-disease outbreaks -- which are expected to increase for a variety of reasons, including climate change, urbanization, diminishing vaccination coverage and security instability;
  7. Bleisure travel -- and whether employers are responsible to cover leisure travel on either end of a business trip as part of their duty of care;
  8. Millennials and Generation Z travelers entering the workforce -- who continue to challenge travel policies and risk strategies with different preferences, expectations and attitudes; 
  9. Duty-of-care legal cases; and
  10. Duty of care for startups and small-to-medium enterprises -- which often have few resources and little experience with respect to corporate-travel obligations.

More risks anticipated

International SOS also partnered with global market research firm Ipsos MORI to survey 1,300 business-travel decision-makers for the "Business Resilience Trend Watch," which offers insight into attitudes and expectations for 2020. More than half of respondents (51 percent) believe health and security risks have increased in the past year, and nearly half (47 percent) anticipate increased risk in the coming year.

The most common reason traveler itineraries will change in 2020 is for security threats -- as noted by more than two-thirds of respondents (68 percent), a full 23 percentage points higher than the year before. That was followed by civil unrest (52 percent), geopolitical unrest (52 percent) and natural disasters (51 percent).

Many respondents added that epidemics (31 percent), infectious diseases (35 percent), and detention and kidnapping (29 percent) would also be responsible for itinerary modifications -- with each of those factors rising significantly (between 17 and 19 percentage points) over the 2018 survey results.

Policy change needed

The survey also revealed that employers are not aligning travel policies with new, growing or unique potential-risk factors. Among the areas of concern -- dubbed "grey zones of risk" by International SOS -- are the following:

  • Only 11 percent of respondents included sharing-economy services in their travel policies;
  • About one-quarter (26 percent) include considerations for female travelers in their policies;
  • Less than one-third (31 percent) address cyber security;
  • Only one in ten (11 percent) include considerations for LGBTQ+ travelers;
  • Just 15 percent address mental health issues;
  • A mere 12 percent include considerations for travelers with disabilities; and
  • Less than a quarter (22 percent) cover bleisure travel

Help required

Likewise disconcerting is the ability of travel managers to convey policy and information effectively to their travelers. More than half (53 percent) continue to struggle with educating employees about travel risks, and a significant percentage struggle with communicating with employees during a crisis (47 percent), tracking employee travel (42 percent) and managing a crisis (40 percent).

International SOS has updated its interactive Travel Risk Map, a helpful tool for international site selection. For more information about the 2020 Travel Risk Outlook, click here.