The Journey Man
State Department Advisories: Whys, Wherefores And Uses For Travelers
Los Angeles Times Syndicate
Thinking of going to Cyprus, Jamaica, Indonesia? How about a trip to Greece, Japan or Mexico?
The U.S. State Department has issued travel advisories about each of these destinations.
Does this mean you should delay or cancel your trip?
First, a description of the three types of travel advisories issued by the State Department.
Travel notice: The least serious advisory - simply a notice advising travelers of an inconvenience - an unusual customs regulation, labor strike, road conditions or small-scale outbreak of disease.
Travel notices include information that may not affect all American citizens traveling to a particular region, but they do contain important information. (Some recent examples: problems about black market currency exchanging in Africa, and bureaucratic logjams for Americans trying to adopt children in Bucharest, Romania. Another alerted Americans to import/export problems in Burma, and the arrest last December of a U.S. businessman for carrying jewelry, which he had locally and legally obtained.
Travel caution: A more serious advisory, where the State Department advocates that either all or non-essential travel be deferred by American citizens to certain or all parts of a country.
The first advisory the department released for last week's short-lived coup in the Soviet Union, on Monday, was a caution. It noted that a state of emergency had been declared, said that transportation systems were operating normally and suggested that Americans in the U.S.S.R. avoid public demonstrations and contact the American Embassy in Moscow. Late Monday evening, the caution was upgraded to a "warning."
Travel warning: The most serious advisory, issued when the State Department believes a situation has a potential for actual physical danger - terrorism, natural disaster, civil disorder - to Americans.
The warning about the Soviet Union last week noted military activity in Moscow and suggested that prospective visitors to the U.S.S.R postpone their trips and that Americans already there consider leaving.
On Wednesday, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. would study the situation and "wait for the dust to settle" before rescinding the warning.
"We don't wait for an injury or death count before issuing a warning," says a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be identified. "We have to constantly gauge the ability or desire of local foreign governments to protect foreigners."
Although State Department travel advisories have been issued since 1978, there has been a substantial increase in the number - and types - of travel advisories issued since Dec. 21, 1988.
That date was a watershed moment for State Department advisories - the explosion and crash of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
On Dec. 5, 1988, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki received an anonymous telephone threat that a bomb would be carried aboard a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to New York within the next two weeks. On Dec. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow posted and distributed a security bulletin describing the warning to embassy personnel.
Three months later, the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism - formed in the aftermath of Flight 103 - wanted to know why State Department personnel were warned, but U.S. citizens were not.
A staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Raymond Smith, testified at a hearing on March 9, 1989, "When I looked at this (the bulletin) and thought about it, I said to myself, `If I were planning to travel during this period of time, would I take this information into account?' And the answer was yes. And the second question I asked myself was `Well, what right do I have to use this information and not to make it available to other people?' "
There appeared to be a double standard, although the State Department insisted otherwise.
"Yes, there are many more advisories now," concedes a State Department official. "And yes, this is partly as a result of the fallout of Pan Am 103. The American public began to look to us for more information about travel risks, and we responded by saying that we would tell you what we tell our own people - whether the threat is typhoid or terrorism, currency regulations or cholera."
Some countries - Cambodia, Afghanistan, Albania, North Korea, among others - have had travel advisories in effect for quite some time.
During the Gulf war, the State Department issued a total of 74 separate travel advisories. (In previous years, the number of advisories averaged about 50).
And some regions - and the Middle East in particular - have had travel warnings in effect since the Persian Gulf crisis.
Not surprisingly, not everyone is pleased with the increase in travel advisories.
"Travel advisories do impact us," says Grace Herget, spokesperson for the Japan National Tourist Organization. "But our major concern with these advisories is that they only warn or caution travelers of specific areas where there are troubles. We just don't want things to be blown out of proportion."
And yet, the very issuance of a travel advisory could have an adverse impact on tourism.
In the case of Japan, the most recent travel advisories concerned possible dangers relating to seismic and volcanic activity in certain parts of the country.
The State Department has also issued a travel warning for Greece. "Current threat level of terrorist acts in this area is expected to continue," says the advisory. The advisory notes that more than a dozen attacks in the region targeting property of organizations "with official and commercial ties with America."
This travel warning is the last thing the Greek government needs to hear.
"We are absolutely and negatively affected by these advisories," says Platon Davakis, U.S. Director of the Greek National Tourist Office. "There are terrible things happening all over the world and there are no advisories put out against certain countries. But there's one for Greece. . . . The reputation of my country is threatened. . . . In Athens, a bomb went off at an American Express office and immediately there was a travel advisory against Greece. But the IRA almost blew up the whole cabinet in London and no advisory was issued. Travel advisories are a little hypocritical.
"It seems that it is much easier to issue some advisories in some countries rather than others. And people are afraid. But," Davakis says, laughing, "President Bush was in Greece (recently). I suppose he didn't read the travel warning."
"We're well aware that the travel industry is not pleased with the existence of travel advisories," says a U.S. State Department official, speaking on the condition she not be identified. "We're sympathetic, but our responsibility is not to promote travel but to protect American citizens overseas. Where the interests of the travel industry and of American citizens conflict, we have to come down on the side of the traveler. If we get a specific, credible threat - which we got for Greece - we have no choice but to issue an advisory."
But travelers have choices.
When planning a trip overseas, call the Citizens Emergency Center at the State Department, 1-202-647-5225, from any touch-tone phone and access a recording of any current travel advisory.
(If the line is busy, be patient. The State Department has installed new lines and is currently averaging 50,000 calls per week to the special number. You can also order a printed copy by mail, and the State Department said last week that it was considering installing a FAX system that would allow copies to move more quickly to people who request them).
Listen to the advisory carefully. Is the State Department telling you not to travel to an entire country or just to one region?
Does the advisory urge Americans not to travel to the country in question? Does the travel advisory say your life is in danger, or simply urge you not to drink the water?
Usually, a travel advisory is simply giving you important information to help you plan your trip to avoid problems, not to avoid travel. More often than not, listen to the advice, then go ahead and take your trip.
(Copyright, 1991, Los Angeles Times Syndicate)
The Seattle Times travel staff contributed information for this column. Peter S. Greenberg's syndicated column appears occasionally in the Travel section. Send questions and comments to Peter S. Greenberg, c/o Travel Editor, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
Here are recent advisories from the U.S. State Department:
-- Mexico: Exercise caution in light of bombings in Mexico City on Aug. 11, 15 and 18, at sites identified with the U.S., including an IBM office, a McDonald's, a Sanborn's retail store, and a branch office of Citibank. No one was hurt. Reasons for the bombings remain unknown.
-- Guatemala: Updating an earlier caution, the State Department advises travelers of an outbreak of cholera. Use bottled beverages and make sure all shellfish and vegetables are well-cooked and still hot when eaten; also peel fruit. More information: Center for Disease Control's International Travelers Hotline, 1-404-332-4559.
Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.