2019 Travel Risk Calendar

January 11, 2019

This article displays a global risk timetable in which scheduled events for 2019 are scored for their assessed risk in five areas: political violence, civil unrest, terrorism, crime and travel disruption. It then discusses trends across global politics and security for 2019, before an in-depth assessment of four of the scheduled events, each assessment concluding with travel advice appropriate to the region and the predicted risks.  


2019 Global Themes


Global geopolitics in 2019 will be dominated by ongoing tensions between the United States and China. Both economies are expected to slow, but their trade war will continue, having a major impact on economic and political stability across the world. The dominance of this commercial tension makes it increasingly likely that 2019 will mark a new bipolarity in global geopolitical relations. As during the Cold War, this is likely to make business or leisure travel increasingly difficult (not just between these two powers, but within their respective networks of allies), something that has already been seen in December 2018 with the recent arrests in Vancouver and Beijing.


As President Trump focusses on the “easy win” of soothing relations with North Korea (another meeting with President Kim is expected this spring), US diplomatic efforts will increasing move away from the complexity of the Middle East. So, although Syria and Yemen may progress towards some form of violent resolution, it will not be to the satisfaction of the international community. As Assad slowly reclaims control over former rebel-held Syrian territory, the withdrawal of US soldiers from Syria’s oil-rich north-east hands easy opportunities to Iran and Russia to increase their own influence there, and potentially to mitigate their own respective economic problems through access to profitable Syrian oilfields. Kurdish-led rebel groups will struggle, and Islamic State will have an opportunity to consolidate and re-group in the area. These developments will only prolong the violence in the country, and the associated threat to Israel’s security may force them into some form of pre-emptive action.


President Trump will be seeking any sort of distraction from the potential outcome of the Mueller investigation, expected in early 2019, which is set to reveal the extent of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign. His response to this could be any foreign policy development that makes him look strong and influential, and that will fire up his electoral base. This could even include a military campaign of some sort, something more likely now that important stabilising figures such as Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson have left his circle of advisors, freeing his hand to follow his own course.


Populism will continue to prove an attractive option for voters across the world as a modern alternative to the traditional left-right spectrum: electorates, increasingly distanced from nuanced political debate, will continue to resort to identity politics and to seek simplistic scapegoats for complex national problems. There are likely to be political tensions in Brazil as the new president, the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, takes office with a pro-gun, pro-religion, anti-homosexuality, anti-abortion agenda that will not endear him to the international community or to middle class urban liberals. There is a high risk that his politics will fuel violence across major Brazilian cities.

General elections in Nigeria and India (February and April respectively) and the Afghan presidential election (currently set for late July) will all have a profound influence on regional politics in their respective international areas. All will be tense, will lead to demonstrations of some sort, and pose a high risk of serious political violence that could disrupt travel infrastructure, increase crime, and result in harm to innocent civilians. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is increasingly likely, particularly given the expected withdrawal of 7,000 US troops.


Perhaps of greatest global concern should be the ongoing issues with global warming that will lead to more extreme weather events, the majority of which will continue to hit the developing world, but will still have an international economic impact. Despite a major climate conference planned for 11th March, few measurable changes are likely to be enforced without the involvement of the United States. There is a high risk that heavy rainfall, floods, tsunamis, droughts, fires and hurricanes will have a major impact on populations, infrastructure and economies around the world.
The last few years have witnessed the return of diseases that were thought to have been almost eradicated – measles and mumps in North America, scabies in Western Europe, polio in South Asia and West Africa, influenza and bubonic plague worldwide, among many others. Growing populations, poor living conditions and, most significantly, increased resistance to antibiotics will prolong these epidemics, increasing the pressure on governments and non-governmental organisations in developing countries, and possibly leading to increased security pressures.


Predictions are very hard to make, particularly given the current state of American politics. British politics is even harder to analyse, and predictions surrounding Brexit are almost worthless. Few of the themes mentioned above relate to any specific dates throughout 2019. However, some expected events can be plotted in a calendar, as in the above calendar, and some can be further distilled with clear risks for travellers to the respective countries.




• Event: Presidential and legislative elections
• Date: 31st March and 27th October



Presidential elections will be held in March to appoint a new head of state for a five-year term. The current president, Petro Poroshenko, has been in office since June 2014 and has overseen a more anti-Russian foreign policy than his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych. The next president will have to negotiate an ongoing conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, and increasingly tense relations with Moscow.


Elections will be held in October for Ukraine’s unicameral, 450-seat parliament. 27 seats remain uncontested due to the crisis in the Donbas and the Russian annexation of Crimea. As with much of Ukraine’s politics, these elections will be a reflection of the broader contest between pro-Europeans and pro-Russians.


Changes since last Election

At the last elections in 2014, Petro Poroshenko’s bloc won enough seats to be able to build a coalition government with support from anti-Russia parties including “Self-Reliance”, “Fatherland”, and the People’s Front.


The pro-Russian vote has declined since 2014, with the ongoing occupation of the Donbas, and with Ukrainian national pride still suffering from the annexation of Crimea in early 2014 (two factors that have seriously damaged the Ukrainian economy). President Putin’s military aggression in the region has continued and pro-Russian parties cannot rely on much more than 20% of the national vote.


Ukrainian politicians have continued to be the subject of international corruption investigations, and Ukraine currently ranks at 130th in Transparency International’s Global Perceptions Index. The departure of former president Viktor Yanukovych from office in 2014 did not result in the hoped-for purge of corrupt officials. In the meantime, stories emerged during the trial of Paul Manafort in the US, revealing his dual support for Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin. At the same time, President Poroshenko’s links to secret offshore companies on the British Virgin Islands have only increased national perceptions of a corrupt oligarchy in Ukraine that has not been tackled by the state’s judiciary.


Possible Outcomes

At least 20% of the electorate remains undecided in both presidential and legislative elections, and the turn-out for both is expected to be very low. This is perhaps a reflection on the poor quality of the candidates, but more likely on a tendency for younger generations to regard politicians with suspicion in the light of the ongoing corruption allegations. It is very likely that the field of presidential candidates will change before March, and even more likely that developments amongst the parties will change the balance of coalitions in the lead-up to the election in October.


With at least three pro-Moscow candidates having declared their intention to stand for president, the pro-Russian vote, already reduced, is expected to be divided further and will fail to attract any votes from the pro-European electorate. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko leads the polls with 16%, a poor rating that reflects the divided field. Other major contenders include former comedy actor Volodymyr Zelensky and popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, both of whom seem to be appealing to a more youthful electorate than Tymoshenko and President Poroshenko (who still attracts votes despite allegations of corruption). The tight nature of the polling makes it very difficult to predict which candidates will enter the second round, let alone who might be the ultimate winner. Unless the pro-Russian parties can unite around a single strong presidential candidate, there is likely to be a pro-European president returned to office.


In parliament, the pro-European coalition that was built after the election in 2014 has a strong chance of retaining power, in which case Ukraine will continue down the path of increasing EU integration and antipathy towards Moscow. Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Fatherland” party seems to be ahead in the polls, but will still need to build a coalition to provide a working majority. Either way, the new president will have six months in which to work alongside a parliament that may be experiencing the fragmentation of the current majority coalition, and is likely to be hostile. If pro-European parties and candidates win office and a majority, then Ukraine will start to move steadily away from the influence of Moscow.


Risk to Travellers

There is a risk that, as with the Russian-backed Donbas uprising in 2014, a pro-European victory will lead to some sort of political reaction from Moscow. Violent Russian aggression could again lead to a response such as the imposition of martial law in affected areas, particularly in regions with Russian populations, and districts bordering the Black Sea. Alternatively, Moscow may take a more subtle approach and seek to destabilise its neighbour by attacking its cyber network or national infrastructure via its links into Russian territory.


In such an environment, with these elections being as important as they are, there is a high risk of civil unrest. Protests are common in Ukraine, and violent demonstrations are likely to be a part of 2019’s domestic politics, mainly in Kiev and major cities. It is very likely that these will be dealt with violently by the national security forces.


Travellers to Ukraine should:

• avoid all travel to eastern regions, where conflict is ongoing
• establish communications with respective embassies before travel
• establish contingency travel plans in the event of travel disruption
• make early arrangements for secure accommodation
• consider using a security escort in high-risk areas
• avoid all demonstrations and protests
• monitor local and international media for political and security updates
• limit access to online bank accounts and important IT networks as much as possible
• check all routes and plans with airlines before departure
• employ a reliable tracking, emergency evacuation and remote medical assistance company




• Event: General election
• Date: 13th May



This legislative election will take place half-way through the presidential term of Roderigo Duterte, in which half of the 24-seat Senate and all (300 seats) of the House of Representatives will be contested.


Changes since last Election 

The opposition Liberal Party has dominated the Senate until recently. It has been weakened since the last election (2016) by a number of significant defections to PDP-Laban, the party of President Duterte, which have increased the power of an already-autocratic leader.


President Duterte has recently started to focus on constitutional change with a view to turning the Philippines into a federation. This has been designed to decentralise power from the metropolis of Manila and give more authority to the culturally- and religiously-varied states making up the country. A divisive subject, it has already led to the postponement of these elections.


The Mindanao region, a Muslim area long troubled by crime and violent separatists, has recently been the focus of increased conflict between security forces and Islamists allied to Islamic State. Duterte has sought to manage this by promising decentralisation and by imposing martial law on the region, which has since been extended until the end of 2019. On 21st January and 6th February, a referendum will be held on the creation of a new autonomous region of Bangsamoro, within Mindonao.


Possible Outcomes

The Senate is likely to increase its number of PDP-Laban members significantly, allowing President Duterte to push through his agenda for constitutional change, to continue his violent anti-crime policies, and to further his enforcement of martial law in areas of rebellion. Although an increased majority for the president will help legislation to be passed quickly, in the long-term it will be seen as a negative development, as it enables him to conduct these policies unchecked by democratic bodies, increasing the opportunities for human rights violations.


President Duterte campaigned on a promise of, among other policies, a change to a federal system of government. Consolidation of power during this election will allow him to enact this reform, particularly as the current parliament does not support the move, and as the population either opposes any constitutional change, or is unaware of its implications.


Greater political freedom to manoeuvre will allow the president to increase his already-violent attacks against drug gangs, which have allowed the police to act with impunity against criminals, leading to calls for investigations by international human rights groups. It will also give him a greater hand to direct political attacks against the Catholic Church in the country.


Risk to Travellers

There is a high risk that Islamists in Mindonao will use the legislative elections to increase attacks against military and civilian targets in the area. The planned referenda regarding the status of Bangsamoro are unlikely to placate militant groups in the short term, and political developments in the area will only increase tensions for the time being.


Constitutional developments in the long term will also be used by extremists to push their own agendas, and will result in attacks against state infrastructure, leading to further military action and the use of martial law in Mindonao. Islamists may also take the opportunity to conduct terrorist attacks against civilians in Manila.


In other regions of the Philippines, particularly Manila, there is likely to be some civil unrest in response to developments from the election, particularly any aggressive proclamations by the president. However, these do not have a history of being particularly violent, and may result only in some transport disruptions. Criminals are likely to take advantage of large crowds and travel chaos to conduct petty crime, and may target westerners in more violent attacks, including kidnap.


Travellers should:
• consider using a security escort for travel in more insecure areas
• reconsider travel to Mindanao until tensions reduce
• have contingency travel plans in place, in the event of travel disruption
• avoid walking alone in isolated urban areas, particularly poorer districts of large cities
• remain vigilant, keep valuable equipment out of sight, and be cautious in locations that lack reliable security
• not resist criminals and stay calm if attacked
• make arrangements for secure accommodation in advance
• avoid all demonstrations and protests
• monitor local and international media for security updates, particularly those relating to the imposition of martial law
• employ a reliable tracking, emergency evacuation and remote medical assistance company




• Country: China
• Event: Anniversary of 1989 protests
• Date: 4th June


On 4th June every year, there are always higher levels of internet activity than normal, as Chinese citizens discuss the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, share relevant content, and access international websites for wider coverage. This activity usually prompts increased concerns amongst the political elite. Whilst the middle classes are booming, the Communist Party remains strongly in control, and President Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, China is experiencing its first economic dip for some time, it is trying to buy allies in developing nations with its expensive “belt and road” policy (which has not been successful in the last twelve months), and has entered into an uncertain trade war with the United States. If ever there was a time for another liberal protest by students and democrats in China, 2019 would appear to be an appropriate time.


Much of the Tiananmen Square protest was fed by the participants’ patriotism and desire to have a government that would present a modern, positive China to the international community. The Chinese population of 2019 has developed a very anti-American sentiment, as President Trump has sought to openly attack China on trade. President Xi’s most significant fear around this anniversary will be that students and democrats with these patriotic sentiments will be more motivated than other citizens to foment widespread anti-government sentiment at home.


Possible Government Response
The Chinese government has demonstrated how keen it is to prevent the population from commemorating, even discussing, the “June Fourth Incident” of 1989. This year, the government’s Cyberspace Administration has already announced that it will conduct a six-month campaign, from January, to crack down on “negative and harmful” information online, to include the monitoring of websites, phone apps, online forums and instant messaging services. It will try to close down non-compliant platforms and to prosecute website managers who allow such content. This will provide the right environment for the government to clamp down on any shared content commemorating the incident on this significant anniversary. (The famous image, for instance, of a student standing down a tank is well known around the world, but is the subject of state censorship in China). Any online references to the protests are therefore expected to be erased completely.


The online censorship has already begun, and has already had international consequences. On 2nd January, the Linked-In account of Zhou Fengsuo, a student protest leader at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and now a human rights activist in the US, was suspended in China: it was restored the following day after the (Microsoft-owned) US platform was accused of kowtowing to demands from Beijing. This incident suggests that there will be legal confrontations over the next six months across a global front between a censoring Chinese regime and liberal-minded internet users worldwide.


In addition to online censorship, security forces will be on high alert across the country and its territories. Hong Kong commemorates the incident every year, presenting a strong pro-democracy message. Tensions are likely to be highest in provinces with high ethnic minority populations, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, where groups will be reminded of their lack of representation under Communist Party government, and separatists may seek to use the anniversary to highlight their own respective political plights. There is a strong possibility that the state will impose some form of security measure in both these regions. Taiwan may also feel increased pressure, after President Xi gave a speech on 2nd January calling for an end to Taiwanese independence, threatening force otherwise. It is reasonable to expect that this violent rhetoric, and actions to support it, will be used to dampen any enthusiasm for commemorating 4th June.


Risk to Travellers
The most obvious risk to travellers is that they will fall foul of internet censorship. In the current environment in which westerners are at risk of being arrested as part of a trade war stand-off with the United States, the publication of online content that does not satisfy state censors will provide the government with the opportunity to send out a message about its own management of the political debate. It also gives Chinese foreign policy architects some additional bargaining material with western governments in the trade war.

At the same time, travellers risk becoming involved in violent security incidents if they cross into volatile areas. State security forces have a history of violent responses to dissent and will not discriminate between activists and tourists (or business travellers). Foreign travellers in instable regions may be treated as provocateurs and are likely to be given short shrift by Chinese judicial processes.


Travellers should:
• establish communications with respective embassies in Beijing, ensuring destinations are known in advance
• reconsider travel to Tibet and Xinjiang
• put in place contingency plans if travelling to Taiwan, to allow for a swift departure if necessary
• manage all online content before and during travel, ensuring political topics are avoided
• monitor political developments in the weeks before travel, to warn of potential violence in particular areas
• monitor local and governmental media for the duration of the visit, to warn of civil unrest and violent security operations
• avoid all demonstrations and protests
• employ a reliable tracking, emergency evacuation and remote medical assistance company




• Event: General election
• Date: Summer, latest 4th August


The Republic of South Africa will hold a general election in the summer (date TBC, probably May) for the 400-seat lower house of parliament, which will then formally elect the president (usually the leader of the majority party).


Changes since last Election (2014)
The African National Congress (ANC) retained power in 2014, with its leader Jacob Zuma remaining as president of the country. At the end of his term as leader of the ANC, he failed to win re-election by his party and was replaced as ANC leader by Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2017. Ramaphosa was then elected unopposed as president in February 2018.


The ANC, the dominant force in South African politics for 25 years, lost support in the last two years of Zuma’s presidency, as concerns rose about corruption accusations, and about his apparent intention to continue governing through his wife after the end of his tenure.


The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has traditionally been seen as a white party. However in 2015, its appointment of a new young, black leader, Mmusi Maimane, has started to make it attractive to black voters seeking an alternative to the ANC.


Possible Outcomes
The ANC is now a party that lacks the relevance that it had 25 years. No longer having the focus of the anti-apartheid movement, its current agenda is a sinister land expropriation policy, which will dominate politics until the election, and is likely to remind some voters of the Mugabe-led land grabs in 1990s Zimbabwe. At the same time, Mr Ramaphosa is tainted by his association with the corruption of the Jacob Zuma era, as he served as the latter’s deputy president. Such factors are likely to result in a decrease in the party’s majority in parliament; nonetheless, it is almost guaranteed that the ANC will once again remain in power.


The parties to benefit from this decline in the ANC vote will be the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, neither will take power. The DA have suffered in the last few months, having lost an important mayor, and having experienced criticism for its handling of racial issues; given the decade of political and economic mismanagement by Jacob Zuma, it should have polled significantly higher in recent years. The EFF, a radical left party of black activists, is likely to attract a significant student vote with their dramatic red berets and revolutionary rhetoric, and it may prove to be the natural alternative for black voters seeking a change from the ANC. However, barring six months of extraordinary political developments, Cyril Ramaphosa will be returned to office without much difficulty.


Risk to Travellers
South African elections have, in the last 25 years, been relatively peaceful processes. However, as parties seek to chip away at the ANC’s majority, there is a risk that extremist or populist rhetoric will be used by more groups than just the EFF. There is a high risk that this approach will lead to popular protest and political violence in some districts, perhaps mostly in the poorest areas of the largest cities. In an environment of public protest, the risk of petty and violent crime increases, and tourists or business travellers will be deliberately targeted by opportunist criminals.


Travellers should:
• stay clear of all demonstrations and protests, regardless of the subject
• monitor local and international media for updates on the political and security situation
• not resist criminals and try to stay calm if attacked
• establish contingency plans in the event of travel disruption
• avoid walking alone in isolated urban areas
• remain vigilant at all times, keeping valuables out of sight
• make arrangements in advance for secure accommodation
• leave travel documents locked in a hotel safe, carrying only photocopies if necessary
• employ a reliable tracking, emergency evacuation and medical assistance company