Insurance’s Outsize Influence on Global Travel

It seems that each year, insurance requirements increasingly affect our school global programs in a way that threatens their emphasis on social responsibility and global citizenship. This year, our school cancelled its annual student trip to Colombia because our insurance company would not cover travel to a country that is on the U.S. State Department’s warning list. From the State Department:

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota and Cartagena, but violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.

For the insurance company, this is a blanket rule. If the country is on the warning list, for whatever reason and region, the company will not insure the school for travel to that country. From our point of view, no insurance results in no trip. This was difficult to swallow when we had been traveling to Colombia for years, in partnership with a local school, and in a manner that maximized student safety. It is not easy to sever the close, personal relationships among staff members of these schools for these reasons.

Presumably, the Hotchkiss suit of 2013 played a role in changing insurance company attitudes toward global student travel. One $41 million case likely had an outsize effect on their practices, and consequently, school travel abroad. On the optimistic side, a business opportunity now exists for an insurance company to design travel insurance that considers the nuances within the State Department travel warning list.

I am also seeing these effects as I organize the fifth U.S. tour of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band. This year, schools have inquired whether Maru-a-Pula School holds international travel insurance. I also had a college theater that we are renting require liability insurance, to protect the school in case an audience member were injured at our show. It appeared that we might have to cancel the show, until we discovered that the college also provides a one-time, $50 liability insurance purchase option. I have a hard time understanding how our $50 purchase protects the college from a million dollar lawsuit, but clearly the insurance industry is operating on its own particular economic models. Each trip, it becomes more onerous for a volunteer such as myself to bring a marvelous student marimba group from Botswana to the U.S.

Twenty years ago, independent school global travel was dominated by language study and cultural immersion to Spanish and French-speaking countries. Since then, most independent schools have completely transformed their global travel programs, updating their missions for social responsibility and global citizenship. This has resulted in travel to Asian, African, South American, and other destinations. Most destinations are selected because a school community member has a personal connection with the target country. Will insurance companies adapt to the travel patterns of independent school global programs, or will schools have to adjust their destinations to stay in line with State Department warnings?