Destinations, June 1997
In other words, to be safe, stay home.
With the arrival of summer, both tourism and trouble heat up abroad. Terrorists, thieves, and American tour groups all tend to choose June through September as their most active months. Which is where the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) comes in. With a mandate to protect the safety of Americans overseas, the bureau has long been the source of information for travelers contemplating international travel; today, 50,000 people or so access its Web site daily. "We take our responsibility very seriously," says spokesperson Katherine Munchmeyer.
Evidently, for CA travel advisories are among the most sobering documents in the entire travel world. Guatemala bound? Check the Web site (http://travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html) or call the recorded message center (202-647-5225) and you'll receive a Consular Information Sheet, a rundown on conditions and contacts for every nation on earth. In Guatemala's sheet, for example, you'll find a riveting catalog of guerrilla forays, kidnappings, and mob attacks on Americans suspected of stealing native babies for their organs.
And that's not one of the bureau's more alarmist advisories. Far more dire are its Public Announcements, which are issued whenever a new "situation" arises. After a nationwide pyramid scheme collapsed recently in Albania, for example, an announcement warned of growing anarchy. When impoverished citizens took to the streets with rifles, the announcement was upgraded to the most high-decibel of alerts, a Travel Warning, the State Department's way of saying, Don't go! (Though a Travel Warning is not actually a prohibition on travel.) Besides Albania, 30 other nations have earned announcements or warnings in the past year, including Peru, Pakistan, New Guinea, Nigeria, and Nepal.
So if you've just bought a bucketshop ticket to Bougainville, New Guinea, must you despair? And what about destinations as worrisome — by CA standards — as Denmark?
"The warnings are based on facts," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a foreign affairs scholar at the Brookings Institution. "But they're also very cautious. The bureau has to be conservative. If they don't issue a warning and an American gets hurt, Congress will definitely want to know why."
"I think [the warnings] may err on the side of caution," agrees Jane Bush of the ABC News travel department. "But I'd never ignore them." Airlines, after all, pay them close heed. "You'll notice lots of flights to an affected area being canceled," Bush says. "I tell people, Go if you want. But you may not be able to get back."
As for your trip to Bougainville, try to talk to somebody in the country itself before revising plans, says Olaf Malver, director of business development for Mountain TravelûSobek. "We run trips to supposedly dangerous places all the time," he continues. "Almost everywhere adventure travelers want to go is under an advisory of some kind. So, yes, we take the warnings seriously. But we supplement them with reports from people in the field."
You can do the same. Call the U.S. Embassy in the nation involved (you'll find the number in the Consular Information Sheet). Call an outfitter who's recently run a trip to the area. Check the nation's own Web site (bearing in mind that it's unlikely to dwell at length on local unrest and crime). Or shrug, pack emergency phone numbers, and head to New Guinea or Copenhagen as planned. Guerrillas or "sophisticated purse snatchers" may well strike. But you're just as likely to have your trip tarnished by the $5 tab for coffee at a Danish caf‰, and the Bureau of Consular Affairs has no warning — or remedy — for that.
Illustration by Michael Klein