Travel by the rules: health and etiquette

Etiquette can be very different overseas – and so can the law. Keep a clean record on the road by taking our advice and reading these top tips

4 mins

Two Britons who allegedly had sex on a Dubai beach were sentenced to at least three months in prison in 2008 – though they have since successfully appealed. Was it bad luck that they fell foul of local laws? Or should they have known that in Dubai you can be arrested for kissing, for having sex outside marriage, for obscene gestures, for being gay or for drinking alcohol in public? In fact, Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors aren’t the first visitors to be imprisoned in Dubai this year.

More than a million Brits visit the United Arab Emirates annually, many transitting on flights to South or South-East Asia. It is therefore worth knowing how strict laws are in most Middle Eastern countries.

Drugs culture

What’s perfectly legal in the UK can be forbidden elsewhere. In Dubai, for example, drugs in the bloodstream count as possession.

Codeine can be bought over the counter in the UK as a component of pain-relieving remedies including Solpadol, but a British visitor was held in prison for seven weeks because a urine test showed she had codeine and temazepam in her system. The prosecution said that she should have been carrying a prescription justifying her need to take the drugs but she managed to avoid a prison sentence, which could have been four years. A less-fortunate visitor was imprisoned for possessing the jet-lag cure melatonin, while a man was held after poppy seeds from a bread roll were found on his clothes.

Don’t skimp

Another significant difference of attitudes is dress. Travellers do experience serious sexual assault, which in some cases might have been precipitated by wearing skimpy clothes that contravene local dress codes.

Dressing sensitively allows travellers to merge into the background and makes violent crime, sexual attack and arrest less likely. It pays to understand your risks and to know how much of a target you might be in certain regions – see the Foreign Office website for more details.

Local understanding

Expatriates are most likely to have a brush with the law. They are at higher risk of a road accident, and many are accused of infringing local regulations. In very strict Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, mutaween (religious police) may confront women showing too much skin or even hair.

World travellers should respect local sensibilities, because imprisonment isn’t the only consequence of transgression. In February 2008, a 37-year-old American businesswoman was arrested strip-searched, thrown in jail, threatened and forced to sign a false confession by the mutaween. Her crime was sitting with a male colleague at a Starbucks in Riyadh. Fortunately the woman’s husband was able to use his influence to get her released, but she was bruised and crying when set free.

Life inside

In Saudi, people die in prison; there are lashings and, on average, more than two executions a week. Imprisonment isn’t great for your mental health or your career, either. Some regimes encourage ‘trusties’ (inmates used to control other inmates). There are reliable reports of this happening in Nepal and Thailand – where there are stories, too, of unexpected deaths. Prisoners in Latin America can also suffer violence.

When I was last in Amritsar, northern India, I was approached by missionaries to take food to Western travellers incarcerated for trying to take drugs across the India-Pakistan border. The prisoners were miserable and at risk of becoming ill because relatives were unable to supplement the basic food provided by the prison.

In Thailand, the death penalty is a possibility for anyone entering with illegal drugs; a US citizen was executed in March 2008. Be aware that carrying hypodermics and syringes might lead to accusations of drug addiction, unless these are obviously part of a first aid kit or for administering certified medication such as insulin for diabetes.

Local laws can be surprising. It’s forbidden to possess beef in Nepal, and pork (including bacon) is illegal in several Muslim states. Always check embassy websites, which should forewarn you.

Don’t let your guard down

The Brits arrested in Dubai committed their ‘crime’ while drunk. Alcohol is responsible for a lot of grief – if not deaths – in travellers. It reduces the defences, encourages risky behaviour and, in an unfamiliar environment, can lead to rape, robbery, road accident or drowning.

Immunisations, in fact, don’t save many travellers’ lives. Of Westerners who die abroad, approximately half will succumb to heart attacks and similar ‘at home’ problems that would get the victim wherever. These are probably time-bombs waiting to go off, but it seems that in those who are susceptible, medium to long-haul flights increase the chance of having a heart attack by about three times.

Of the other half of deaths abroad, most are due to accidents and violence in various forms, and getting drunk and/or getting arrested certainly increases the chance of undesirable outcomes.

Travel protocol: top tips for staying safe abroad

A doctor’s letter is worth carrying if you have packed prescription medicines or hypodermics, to prove you need what you're carrying

Never carry items for others - you cannot trust what they're giving you is legitimate

Think carefully about what medicines you can legally carry across borders – never carry recreational drugs

Do your homework – visitors can be targeted for political reasons, research destinations before you go

Travellers who look tidy and ‘respectable’ are usually hassled less at immigration and customs

Know your limits – blood alcohol limits for driving are stricter in Europe, Australia and Canada, so you’re more likely to fail breath tests the morning after a heavy night

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