State Department changes its way of warning travelers

November 22, 1992|By Mike Shoup | Mike Shoup,Knight-Ridder News Service

After no small amount of pressure, the State Department has finally junked its system of travel warnings and is phasing in a new one.

Travelers were confused by the old structure. Travel agents and tour operators hated it. U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., had called it "inconsistent and inadequate in disclosing crime abroad." And the General Accounting Office, at Mr. Conyers' request, issued a report that essentially agreed with the congressman and recommended changes.

Under the old way of doing things, the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs issued three kinds of weighted advisories: warnings, cautions and notices. Warnings basically advised travelers to completely avoid major trouble spots, such as war zones. Cautions and notices pointed out other trouble areas, or potential problems such as crime or health risks, but were designed to do just that and nothing more.

The problem was that at least some Americans were taking cautions and notices as warnings, and avoiding travel to countries that were perfectly (or at least relatively) safe. The GAO report also complained that the advisories were sometimes inadequate, or that they were based not on consumer welfare, but on "foreign policy and economic" considerations.

"Because of inconsistencies in reporting information on crime conditions in foreign countries and in distributing travel advisories and notices, State may not be adequately informing the public about potential dangers of traveling to some foreign countries," the GAO said. "For example, State has issued travel advisories and notices for some foreign countries in which violent crimes against American citizens have occurred, but not for others."

The GAO used Mexico and Kenya as examples. Between June 1989 and February 1991, it said, the State Department reported that 139 Americans were the victims of violent crimes in Mexico, "including 39 murders or attempted murders, 29 rapes or attempted rapes, 3 kidnappings, and 68 assaults and armed robberies." Yet, State said, there was no travel advisory issued for Mexico in that period.

"In contrast," the GAO added, "State issued a travel advisory for Kenya in 1989 because of a few violent incidents, including the murder of an American tourist near a game park."

The Kenyan advisory -- a caution, not a warning not to go -- was particularly galling to the travel business in general, and specifically for a few tour operators who made their living by selling safaris to Kenyan game parks. Such advisories, they argued, could literally put them out of business because they scare everybody away. And the countries involved generally feel the same way because they need the hard currency that comes from the tourists.

"It became obvious that the information was sometimes being misconstrued or misinterpreted," said Nick Ricciuti, director of policy and program coordination in the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "We really wanted the information to go to travelers and be clear and concise and help people make informed decisions. But every time we put one of these out -- a notice, or whatever -- it was presumed by some people that we were telling them not to go to some place, and that was clearly not our intention."

The new system is relatively simple: The only real "advisories" will be direct warnings that Americans avoid certain areas. All other potentially threatening information that might heretofore have prompted cautions or notices will go into "consular information sheets." A sheet will exist for every nation, and the sheets will be available to travelers and travel agents, by computer or phone. Travelers can read them and decide for themselves about any potential threats.

Certainly, there will be less confusion under the new system, which has just been phased in for Europe and parts of the old Soviet Union, and is supposed to be in effect for the rest of the world by the end of this year. For one thing, it will effectively pare down the number of "advisories" from an average of about 50 to no more than a dozen "warnings." And the warnings will be clear.

Take the current one for Bosnia: "U.S. citizens are warned not to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina for any reason, due to the ongoing civil war." No doubt there.

Savvy travelers can easily weed out what they need from the consular information sheets.

The current sheet for Albania, for example, warns that "crime against tourists (robbery, muggings and pickpocketing) is a growing problem, especially on city streets after dark." The sheet says, ". . . tensions in Albania have led to several large demonstrations and some violence," and that facilities for tourists "are not highly developed."

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