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No laughing matter - Ignorance is no defence for travellers who fall foul of local customs and laws

What may be seen as a merry prank in one country may cause grievous offence in another. For example, in 2009 when a British holidaymaker in Marmaris dropped his pants in front of a statue of Kemal Ataturk, he may have expected, at worst, a stern warning if caught. In actual fact, he was jailed, deported and banned from returning to Turkey – a verdict that some Turks felt was too lenient. “He's lucky it was the police that took him,” one Marmaris resident told a British newspaper. “The local boys wanted to kill him for being so insulting.”

More recently, a misjudged jape last year resulted in the jailing and fining of four young visitors (one Dutch, one English and two Canadian) to Malaysia, who stripped off for selfies atop Mount Kinabalu, a mountain considered sacred by many Malaysians. Actions such as these – seemingly innocent to those taking part in them – occur the world over on a regular basis, landing travellers in need of legal representation and assistance from their insurer.

Putting one’s foot in it

Ironically, travellers are at most risk of offending in destinations that appear superficially sophisticated and hedonistic. Few visitors to Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example, can be unaware of their strict laws, but in some seemingly easy-going destinations it’s alarmingly easy to break the law without even trying. Penalties can seem disproportionately harsh, and it can be difficult for first-time visitors to distinguish acceptable behaviour from acts that will cause offence.

In much of the Middle East and North Africa, it's not unusual to see two (straight) men strolling hand in hand. But for mixed-sex couples, public shows of affection are often frowned upon, including popular destinations such as the United Arab Emirates. The UK Foreign Office advises travellers to the UAE that while married couples holding hands ‘is tolerated’, all other open displays of affection, such as kissing and hugging, are ‘generally not tolerated’.

And the UAE is not the only country where visitors need to be aware of strict laws that, if broken, may lead to deportation, imprisonment and a criminal record. “Swearing in certain locations in Australia lands you a $500 fine,” says Mike O'Halloran, head of operations at Northcott Global Solutions. “Wearing camouflage clothes in Grenada could land you in jail for a year. Not carrying ID in Japan can land you in prison for 23 days. Wearing swimwear outside the beach area in Spain lands you a €600 fine. The list goes on throughout the world.”

This summer, several French resorts banned the burkini, an all-over swimusit worn by some Muslim women. In Arizona, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk down Main Street with a Colt .45 pistol on your hip – but carrying an open can of Colt 45 malt liquor along the same street (or almost anywhere in the US) could earn you a night in jail. ‘Open carry’ is one thing, but ‘Open container’ is another. Alcohol is severely restricted in Utah, for example, America's most strait-laced state, but it’s only a couple of hours drive from the state line to anything-goes Las Vegas. Younger visitors to the US from the UK, where the minimum legal age for alcohol purchase is 18, find they can't buy alcohol until they're 21. Over-21s may buy cannabis for recreational use in some US states but may be breaking the law if they do so elsewhere in the US.

Similar confusing variations apply in many other countries. In the UAE, alcohol is legal in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but illegal in neighbouring Sharjah, for instance. In Malaysia, booze is banned in the conservative states of Kelantan and Terengganu, while elsewhere in the country it's widely available to non-Muslims, but not to Muslims. An expat or visitor who buys a beer for a Malaysian Muslim chum breaks the law.

Where capitalism meets conservatism

The UAE has become a hot spot for cases in which travellers find themselves unwittingly on the wrong side of the law. “The UAE features heavily because it is the crossroads where capitalism meets conservative ideology,” explains Mike O’Halloran, head of operations at Northcott Global Solutions. Dubai draws vacationers, corporate travellers and expatriates from all over the world, he points out – but its cosmopolitanism is only skin deep. “Holidaymakers who last year were partying, openly drinking alcohol and sunbathing naked in Spain assume that the higher price of their holiday in Dubai permits at least the same level of acceptance,” says O’Halloran.

The UAE’s strict laws have seen a rise in tourists imprisoned for seemingly minor offences, often connected with social media, he explains, citing the case of Scott Richards, detained earlier this year after publicising a US-based charity on Facebook. It is illegal to advertise charities in the UAE without authorisation. “These kinds of cases are occurring in the UAE because it has become such a popular destination for tourists and expats who are drawn by the image of the Emirates as a modern, prosperous country, and they may be assuming things about the legal system and cultural values of the UAE based on that image,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, a UK-based non-profit legal consultancy.

Others who have fallen foul of UAE law include an American architect, Robert Blake, detained in Abu Dhabi in 2014 for photographing a public building, and Australian expat Jodi Magi, arrested and deported from Abu Dhabi in 2015 after posting a picture online of a car parked across two disabled parking spaces outside her apartment. In Blake’s case, his subject was reportedly one of a number of buildings that are off-limits to photographers. Magi was charged under the UAE’s 2012 Federal Anti-Information Technology Crimes Law, which prohibits taking any picture and posting it on the web without explicit permission.

You can never know when, where or against whom the police will decide to enforce the law.

The social media boom has also contributed to a substantial increase in the number of defamation cases filed in the UAE, according to Sara Khoje and Rebecca Ford, employment partners at the Dubai offices of global law firm Clyde & Co. Such cases may be brought under the UAE's Cyber Crimes Law (Federal Laws 3 and 5, introduced in 2012), or under articles 372, 373 and 378 of the UAE Penal Code, relating to defamation. There is no specific regulation in the UAE of the use of social media, Khoje and Ford say:

“However, careless use of social media, whether for a private or business matter, can result in criminal and civil liability arising. Defamatory content could include posting information about others without their consent, or posting photographs or videos without the consent of the subject.”

In the UAE, what might seem to be minor infringements can escalate quickly into full-scale police and court involvement if zealous private citizens invoke the full force of the law, as in the recent case of a visitor charged with ‘offensive and indecent behaviour’ in a Dubai shopping mall after being accused by a security guard of breaking the Emirate's strict laws against cross-dressing. Like other visitors accused of offences in the UAE, he opted to plead guilty in order to reduce legal costs and avoid a lengthy detention. He was fined 5,000 dirhams (£950).

“Aside from the fact that many things are criminalised in the Emirates which expats would never think are offenses, there is also a problem in that the enforcement of laws seems to be highly arbitrary,” says Rahda Stirling. “Thus, visitors may think something is legal both because it is legal in their home countries, but also because they may see it taking place all around them while they are in the UAE. But you can never know when, where or against whom the police will decide to enforce the law.”

Some Muslim countries, however, are more easygoing in their treatment of visitors. “During the last decade, I don’t remember cases where there were real legal conflicts which affected tourists,” says Dr Asaad Mishail Riad, general manager of Egypt In-Touch Assistance. “When there is a conflict between a tourist and a local – for example, a taxi driver or salesman – or even between spouses, the local authorities and policemen tend to solve it in a smooth and sometimes non-formal way. As a medical and travel assistance company based in Egypt, we haven’t been requested more than twice by insurance or international assistance companies to intervene in similar situations.”

Some may argue that those who encounter legal problems while abroad could and should have informed themselves of local laws and customs before visiting. But that is not always easy. For example, the UK FCO, US State Department and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade all flag up UAE laws against cross-dressing, but fail to define what constitutes an offence. Dubai's own official code of conduct, while laying down that shorts and skirts worn in public ‘shall be of appropriate length’ and clothing must not ‘indecently expose parts of the body’, makes no mention of cross-dressing.

the UAE’s strict laws have seen a rise in tourists imprisoned for seemingly minor offences

“The challenge is that most of the time, travellers are not aware of specific laws and the wider legal framework in the country they travel to, and it’s not something that travellers can always be expected to know about,” says Mark Rands, head of Intana Global. Legal considerations have become an increasingly important aspect of duty of care in the corporate sphere, he says, and are often closely aligned with cultural and social considerations.

He cites a high-profile case of a senior business executive falling foul of Japan's drug laws by carrying medication prescribed in her home country but treated as a controlled substance in Japan:

“Companies and their staff are increasingly relying on corporate travel risk partners to provide the necessary insights [into such issues].” Similarly, he argues, leisure and business travellers must be made aware of the challenges posed by social media.

“The ease of commenting on social media makes it easier to break local laws and making travellers aware of all the rules and restrictions is a challenge,” Rands says. “Travellers need to be aware of the risks so they can take responsibility for their own actions. In the case of business travellers, assistance companies can provide travellers with specific information that can mitigate risk.”

According to Rands, many travellers are looking to social media channels for information and advice. “We conducted some research with business travellers recently,” he says. “When asked how they would most like to receive information regarding travel risks, two fifths (43 per cent) chose email communication, followed by 14 per cent who would prefer a face-to-face meeting. Social media was third, at 13 per cent.”

Travel assistance companies and their partners are offering a growing range of services that go further to head off legal problems or deal with them when they do arise. “In a way, it is down to travellers’ cultural awareness and common sense,” says Rands. “In most cases the remit will be too broad to issue all but the most general kind of warning.” But travel insurers and assistance companies, he says, can seek to provide an informative framework so travellers can be prompted and encouraged to ask more specific questions in light of their personal travel circumstances.

Global assistance providers such as NGS can offer country profiles pre-departure, and e-learning to advise travellers about local security issues and local customs before they even step past the custom gates, says Mike O'Halloran: “These go above and beyond usual practices that tour operators and travel agents typically give out, who don’t generally do the leg work for you.” NGS offers comprehensive pre-trip planning through its web-based ‘Voyage Manager’, a tool that provides information on criminal penalties, embassy locations, safety and security and entry and exit requirements, says O'Halloran: “Our UAE pre-departure country profile, for example, has a section specifically about local customs and restrictions. These list the specific risks of breaking the rules, plus the most common laws.”

Legal considerations have become an increasingly important aspect of duty of care … and are often closely aligned with cultural and social considerations.

However, he cautions, insurance is likely to continue generally caveating liability onto the insured and excluding cover if host country laws are actually broken. “The liability will remain on the traveller; ignorance cannot be an excuse. It is the impact of your intentions, not the intentions, for which you will be held to account.”

Legal helplines, then, could potentially become an increasingly prevalent resource available to travellers. “Because we have been involved in so many cases like Scott Richards’ we realised the necessity of establishing a legal resource similar to, but more comprehensive than, a conventional traveller’s insurance programme,” says Detained in Dubai’s Radha Stirling, whose company offers a membership option to provide legal support and intervention for foreigners who find themselves on the wrong side of the law in Dubai. Members will be able to notify the company via a mobile phone app as soon as a problem occurs, she says: “We will be able to dispatch a lawyer to the police station to try to resolve the matter before it escalates, or if necessary to arrange bail. We can help members to obtain financial support for fines or legal expenses through our local contacts and, when appropriate, we can mobilise a media campaign about their case.”

It’s a minefield out there. Mind how you go...

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