State Department Warnings: What’s in a Name?

Decoding US government warnings to international travelers from the US

Unrest and violence cause travelers — especially Americans — to reconsider international travel plans. Ten percent more Americans visited India in 2007 than in 2006, but with the recent terrorist attacks in Mombai (aka, Bombay) in which six Americans were among the 170 people killed, that number is likely to drop. Ditto travel to Greece, which welcomed 12 percent more international visitors in ’07 than in ’06 but has recently been plagued by riots in Athens, the capital, and concurrent strikes by workers at the Acropolis and other popular tourist sites.

Violence, of course, is volatile, and the US State Department doesn’t always get it right. There were periods when visitors shunned London (Irish Republican Army attacks), central Europe (in the era of Germany‘s Bader-Meinhoff faction and other far-left terrorist groups) and parts of Spain (Basque separatist violence), as well as countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America when when wars, political unrest, assorted insurgencies and government policies made them unwelcoming. Consider that under Augusto Pinochet, Chile was not a desirable or safe tourist destination, now it is, while up north, not too many Americans visit Venezuela under Hugo Chavez or neighboring Colombia with its drug cartel-related violence. And US citizens have been forbidden or discouraged from visiting Cuba for nearly half-a-century, yet those who have visited report Cubans to be warm and welcoming — and their visits to be incident-free.

The US State Department updates and issues travel advisories ranging from subtle warnings to outright recommendations to stay away from certain nations. When deciding on your risk-tolerance in light of these advisories, consider that the US government has also been telling air travelers in this country that the threat level is at “orange” just about since the color coding system was unveiled in 2002. That annoying Department of Homeland Security recording has played so incessantly since then that it has become just so much airport background noise — and I don’t think too many travelers pay much attention.

So it is with some skepticism that I share the State Department’s definition of its country-specific evaluations for Americans contemplating travel abroad. These are updated on the department’s website. Country-by-country evaluations are useful because they are not as simplistic as the “Department of Homeland Security’s terror alert is orange” that we hear at airports.

  • Travel Advisory – This is the general category of perceived threats that could affect Americans traveling to specific regions, countries or cities.
  • Travel Alert – A threat that the State Department believes is of relatively short-term duration, including upcoming elections, hurricane or typhoon threat or other short-term situation.
  • Travel Warning – Chronic violence, including such obvious destinations as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the situation so inflammatory and “potentially dangerous for Americans that we want them to know about that,” Michelle Bernier-Toth, director of the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management, recently told Gannett News Services. Well, duh!

Bernier-Toth also explained that assessing situations is a “very collaborative process between our embassy and consulate, between various bureaus and offices within the department. . . Sometimes we tell people to consider the risk of traveling, sometimes we say you should defer nonessential travel or all but essential travel and sometimes we just recommend you don’t go. The best way to figure out what kind of danger you’re facing is to read the specifics of the alert.”

I am scheduled to visit Egypt with the Society of American Travel Writers in February, and have read the State Department’s assessment, I’m willing to accept the risk

3 thoughts on “State Department Warnings: What’s in a Name?”

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  2. I just don’t know about these advisories…

    If you happen to be unfortunate and end up in a spot of unrest, then bad things can happen. Otherwise, it’s pretty much life as usual. At least that has been my experience.

    Of course, if the borders become blocked or some major political change occurs while you are in foreign borders, more systemic change can occur.

    We were in France when the US entered Iraq and though all of the reports here were about Americans being mistreated, we never felt anything but a sense of regret and disbelief at the actions of our country…nothing negative towards us personally.

    May you travel safely, Claire.

    All good wishes!!

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