Last Monday's attempted coup in Moscow prompted the U.S. State Department to issue an immediate warning advising that American citizens defer all travel to the Soviet Union.
For most travelers who may have had plans to visit the area, such official information probably was unnecessary. News organizations covered the breaking story practically around the clock, thus the potential danger for tourists was easy to see and understand.
But not all travel advisories are so clear-cut.
For example, the State Department has also issued advisories for Cyprus, Jamaica and Indonesia, as well as Greece, Japan and Mexico.
Does this mean that you should delay or cancel your trip if you were planning to go to these countries?
Not necessarily. Fact is, most Americans travel to foreign destinations each year while unaware of any advisories in effect.
"Hundreds of thousands of Americans travel abroad each year, but only a small percentage bother to check on our advisories for certain countries or regions," says a State Department official. "But in the wake of terrorist acts like Pan Am 103, and lately, the war in the Persian Gulf, more and more U.S. travelers are calling to check on these advisories before they leave on their trips."
First, a description of a travel advisory.
Actually, there are three types of advisories: notices, cautions and warnings. The first, a travel notice, is the least serious advisory. It's simply a notice advising travelers of an inconvenience: an unusual customs regulation, labor strike, special road conditions or small-scale outbreaks of disease.
Travel cautions include information that may not affect all American citizens traveling to a particular region, but they do contain important--and useful--information. An example: Americans attempting to exchange currency on the black market in Kenya run the risk of being arrested and detained. Another notice alerted Americans to problems they might have bringing home religious artifacts from Thailand. Certain statues of Buddha can't be taken out of the country without a permit. Violators can be arrested.
The most serious advisory is a travel warning, in which the State Department advocates that all American citizens defer nonessential travel to all parts of a country. These are issued when the State Department believes that there exists a situation with the potential for actual physical danger--terrorism, natural disaster, civil disorder--to Americans.
On July 12, the State Department issued its first travel caution on the situation in Madagascar, advising U.S. citizens of "high political tension" in the country.
On July 25, the caution was amended to advise Americans to defer all nonessential travel to Madagascar.
On Aug. 13, the caution was upgraded to a full travel warning for Americans to defer all travel to Madagascar because of violent political demonstrations and youth gangs that have been attacking foreigners.
"We don't wait for an injury or death count before issuing a warning," says the State Department official. "We have to constantly gauge the ability or desire of local foreign governments to protect foreigners. You just can't wait for the patient's temperature to hit 106 degrees before declaring they have a medical problem."
There are those who argue that this wasn't always the case.
Although State Department travel advisories have been issued since 1978, and made available to the general public on department phone lines since 1988, there has been a substantial increase in the number--and types--of travel advisories issued since Dec. 21, 1988. That date was a watermark moment for the State Department.
On Dec. 5, 1988, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki had 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 Helsinki warning to embassy personnel.
Three months later, the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, formed in the aftermath of the sabotage of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, wanted to know why State Department personnel were warned, but U.S. citizens were not.
At a March 9, 1989, hearing, Raymond Smith, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, testified: "When I looked at this (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. And while the State Department insisted that there was no double standard, the number of travel advisories issued since Lockerbie has increased dramatically.
"Yes, there are many more advisories now," concedes the State Department official. "And yes, this is partly as a result of the fallout from 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."
There are currently 70 separate U.S. State Department travel advisories in effect. Some countries--Cambodia, Afghanistan, Albania and North Korea, among others--have had travel advisories in effect for quite some time. In Cambodia, security for Americans can't be guaranteed since the United States doesn't recognize any government in Cambodia, thus has no formal relationship with that country. In Afghanistan, there is a high level of resistance from political groups, and a threat of politically motivated attacks against Americans.
Durin the Persian Gulf War, the State Department issued a total of 74 travel advisories worldwide. (In previous years, the number of advisories has averaged about 50 per month.) Some of those advisories are still in effect, including the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East, including countries ranging from Turkey to Jordan.
Not surprisingly, not everyone is pleased with the increase in State Department travel advisories.
"Travel advisories do impact us," says Grace Herget, a spokeswoman for the Japan National Tourist Organization in New York. "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. An advisory should be justified."
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, first issued in February. The advisory notes that there have been more than a dozen attacks in the Eastern Mediterranean region (Greece and Turkey), targeting property of organizations "with official and commercial ties with America."
This travel warning is the last thing the Greek government needs.
"We are absolutely and negatively affected by these advisories," says Platon Davakis, U.S. director of the Greek National Tourist Organization in New York. "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. There are a lot of people hurt by the advisories. 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," Davakis charged. "It seems that it is much easier to issue some advisories in some countries rather than others. And people are afraid."
"We're well aware that the travel industry is not pleased with the existence of travel advisories," says the State Department official. "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."
Travelers have choices as well.
To get a rundown of current State Department advisories, you can call the Citizens Emergency Center at the State Department (202-647-5225) from any touch-tone phone and listen to an audio recording of any current travel advisory. (If the line is busy, be patient. The State Department has installed new lines and is currently averaging about 50,000 calls per week to the special number.)
The recording will give you up to three different advisories per call. Callers can listen to the entire advisory, or if the advisory is particularly lengthy, you have the option of listening to a summary of the advisory.
Listen to the advisory carefully (you can also order a printed copy by mail). Is the State Department telling you not to travel to an entire country or just to one region? A current travel caution to Indonesia, for example, warns Americans about travel to the two most remote provinces in the country due to civil unrest.
Calling the State Department is not the only way to get the advisories. They are released to the wire services, which may choose to send them out any time for possible publication in newspapers and magazines. Advisories are also available if you have a PC and subscribe to any of three popular on-line computer databases--the electronic OAG (Official Airline Guide), Compu-Serve or General Electric's GEnie.
I would not advise calling travel agents or airlines for up-to-date advisories. Best bet: Order a booklet from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, called "Key Officers of Foreign Service Posts," which provides names and addresses for all U.S. embassies, consulates and missions abroad. It costs $1.75. Though calling our foreign service representatives doesn't always guarantee a prompt answer, it is another source of potentially valuable information.
On Aug. 14, the State Department issued an advisory for Jamaica. The advisory warns that "the level of crime has exceeded the level of criminal activity elsewhere in the Caribbean," and advises Americans not to walk around at night and to avoid public transportation.
Does the advisory urge Americans not to travel to Jamaica?
No. It simply urges them to exercise common sense.
More often than not, a travel advisory is simply giving you important information to help you plan your trip to avoid problems, not to avoid travel.