City breaks: Take these steps to avoid hazardous situations during major demonstrations

Press release

It is spring, and the season for weekend, mini holiday and city break getaways is well under way. But several of the classic city break destinations this year offer political unrest and demonstrations with a risk of subsequent rioting.

Most city break tourists keep track of local weather forecasts and have investigated which museum exhibitions have good reviews and which restaurants are worth visiting. But perhaps only few of them keep in mind to check how the political situation affects security in the country that they are travelling to.

Read also: Insights: Spring is equal to city breaks

It does not need to come to talk of civil war-like situations or specific terror threats until it is worth to take some precautions about one’s conduct. A demonstration in a big city that attracts thousands of people can potentially be terrifying enough. In particular, when the demonstrations—as we have seen in France in the last half a year—develop into riots, vandalism and fights with the police.

SOS International has taken the temperature of how political tension affects security for travellers in classic city break destinations such as Paris, Barcelona and London.

The Yellow Vests in Paris
The so-called Yellow Vests have organised demonstrations in Paris every Saturday since November last year in order to express their dissatisfaction with the political system. In January 2019, it looked as if the weekly demonstrations were in retreat, but they flared up again in March, with resulting violence and destruction. The unrest since November has caused a total of 11 fatalities, more than 3,800 casualties and destruction worth more than EUR 200 million.

“As long as you stay away from the demonstrations, Paris is generally a safe city to be in. But the demonstrations we have seen in Paris in the last half a year are very violent, and this is not to be ignored,” says Karin Tranberg, Executive Vice President of the Medical Division of SOS International.

She urges travellers to stay away from demonstrations:

“You can quickly be confused with a protester and end up clashing with the police. And from a practical standpoint, if you go against the recommendations of the authorities, you risk having your insurance coverage lapse in its entirety. This can be interpreted as acceptance of risk and can constitute grounds for refusal of coverage,” says Karin Tranberg.

The French authorities have prohibited demonstrations in certain areas of Paris such as, for example, Champs-Elysees, which is traditionally a very sought-after tourist destination.

Read also: Good advice to safe city trips

London and Barcelona
None of the other classic European city break destinations is experiencing phenomenons like the Yellow Vests in Paris. There is nonetheless good cause to pay attention to large crowds of people and demonstrations in both London and Barcelona.

After two years of preparing for their divorce with the EU, the citizens of the United Kingdom saw the deadline on 29 March pass without a solution. The citizens of London have taken out to the streets on large marches and demonstrations on several occasions. According to the British media, the People’s Vote UK movement gathered up to 1 million people on a demonstration that passed through central London at the end of March. And London has most recently been the site of major climate demonstrations over Easter.

Barcelona is also a city that is generally regarded as a safe city to be in. However, it must be noted that Barcelona is the “capital” of Catalonia, which has been severely divided on the issue of secession from Spain in the last couple of years. The Spanish Prime Minister has called for elections due to be held on 28 April, and there is simultaneously an ongoing lawsuit against 12 Catalan separatists. The lawsuit made more than 200,000 protesters flock out to the streets of Barcelona in February this year.

Previous demonstrations in Barcelona have devolved into rioting and violent fights with the police—in particular, when the demonstrations were about the festering question of secession from Spain.

Good advice about demonstrations for travellers:

SOS International and its cooperation partner Guardian Security Risk Management have the following recommendations in connection with demonstrations for travellers in major cities.

  • It is always important to keep up-to-date on political tensions in the country you are visiting. The Foreign Ministry’s travel guidelines are a really good place to start.
  • As a rule, you should stay away from demonstrations.
  • If you end up in a demonstration, you should move away from the centre, towards the sides, and then away from the front part of the demonstration (e.g. where the police cordon is).
  • In general, you must try to completely get away from the area rather than go into shops along the street as you otherwise risk being trapped.
  • However, you should seek shelter inside if there is an immediate threat outside (live bullets, stone-throwing, use of tear gas, violent collisions and the like).

In Paris, be particularly mindful on 1 May. Labour Day in France is traditionally a day that can devolve into civil unrest.

The Foreign Ministry’s travel guidelines:

France:
You should stay away from crowds and demonstrations. They can start at short notice and develop violently. This applies, in particular, to major cities.

The so-called “Yellow Vests” have demonstrated every week since November 2018—typically on Saturday. In many cases, the demonstrations have developed violently, with clashes between the protesters and the police.

We recommend that you keep up-to-date on the current situation via the local authorities, the news media (e.g. RFI or France24) and your travel agency. You should always follow the recommendations of the local authorities.

Spain:
You should stay away from crowds and demonstrations. They can start at short notice and develop violently. This applies, in particular, to major cities such as Barcelona as well as other places in Catalonia. 

We recommend that you keep up-to-date on the current situation via the local authorities, the news media and your travel agency. You should always follow the recommendations of the local authorities.

The United Kingdom:
You should stay away from crowds and demonstrations. They can develop violently.

We recommend that you keep up-to-date on the current security situation via the local authorities, the news media, e.g. the BBC, or your travel agency.

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