How helpful is the State Department's travel information?
Seasoned travelers know that it pays to look beyond information provided by the U.S. State Department on its Web site when it comes to advice on visiting other countries.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Seasoned travelers know that it pays to look beyond information provided by the U.S. State Department on its Web site (www.travel.state.gov) when it comes to advice on visiting other countries.
I was reminded of this while reviewing various travel advisories on Thailand and Bolivia where anti- and pro-government clashes have triggered recent political clashes.
Information published on the government Web sites of Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom tends to be more detailed, up-to-date, easier to find and more useful in terms of specific advice for traveling in different areas within a country.
How and when the State Department decides to issue an official warning — a recommendation that Americans avoid travel and a critical blow to any country's tourism industry — has always been controversial.
Critics question how much politics and economic considerations come into play, and how frequently the government reviews the situation once it puts a warning in place.
Indonesia, a country where many tourists travel with no problems, was on the list for eight years until last May due to bomb attacks between 2002 and 2005. India, where more than 140 have died in bombings in four cities since May, is not on the list.
Considering the Bush administration's deteriorating relations with Bolivia's Evo Morales government and its close ties to Thailand — the U.S. is one of the country's biggest foreign investors — seeking the travelers' equivalent of a second, third or fourth opinion makes sense.
Political developments have been ongoing in Thailand since Sept. 2, when anti-government protests caused then-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to impose a state of emergency in Bangkok. He was forced to resign, and his replacement, Somchai Wongsawat, lifted the decree on Sept. 14, citing tourism concerns. On Sept. 17, lawmakers elected him the new prime minister, setting up a showdown with protesters who opposed his appointment.
The Sept. 2 events, while mostly limited to the prime minister's compound and nearby areas of Bangkok, briefly shut down airports in southern beach resorts, and caused governments around the world to issue various types of travel advisories.
Singapore and South Korea advised against all travel to Thailand. Other countries urged a "high degree" of caution and advised against travel in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla.
The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs breaks down foreign travel advice into three categories: Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts and what it calls "Country Specific Information," a catchall for reports on everything from health conditions to drug crime and "minor political disturbances."
It didn't add Thailand to the 28 countries on its travel warning list, probably the right move considering the circumstances. But neither did it issue a travel alert, a second-tier advisory reserved for short-term situations — storms, potential terrorist threats or, by the State Department's own definition, "election-related demonstrations or violence" that might pose some risk.
Travelers looking for information had to know to click through to "Country Specific Information," go to "Thailand," and click on "Recent Embassy Notices for American Citizens." There the government posted a seven-paragraph report labeled a "Warden Message" from its Thai embassy.
It noted the state of emergency and cited news reports that transportation workers might go on strike and that schools would be closed. It advised citizens to avoid areas where the demonstrations were taking place and to reconfirm flights.
Not only was the information brief and hard to find, it was quickly outdated, failing over the next several weeks to include the news that the emergency decree had been lifted, the airports reopened and a new prime minister appointed.
More helpful and user-friendly is the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Web site, www.smartraveller.gov.au.
Under the title "Travel Advisories" is a clear explanation of a five-tier system of travel advice, noting that cities or regions within a particular country may be at different advice levels.
Australia's advice on Sept. 2 was to "exercise a high degree of caution" in Thailand overall and "not to travel" in the southern provinces. It updated its report on Sept. 17 noting that the emergency decree was lifted.
Canada (www.voyage.gc.ca) uses a four-tier rating system that also includes region-specific advice. For Thailand, it, too, recommended "a high degree of caution" overall and advised against travel in the southern provinces. It updated its report on Sept. 16, noting that the state of emergency had been lifted and air and train services resumed. It continues to warn that "the security situation remains tense and could further deteriorate without warning."
The UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk) breaks its advisories into four parts: countries where it advises against all travel, parts of countries where it advises against all travel, countries where it advises all but essential travel and parts of countries where it advises against all but essential travel.
Continuing to call the overall political situation in Thailand "very uncertain," it updated its report on Sept. 10 with the news of the prime minister's resignation and again on Sept. 15 noting that the emergency degree had been lifted.
The State Department issued a travel warning on Sept. 15 advising against all travel in Bolivia, citing an "unstable social and security situation" as clashes escalated between opponents and supporters of President Morales.
Then, last month, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of fomenting anti-government violence in the eastern half of the country. Washington reciprocated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador, moving Peace Corps volunteers to Peru and threatening to suspend duty-free allowances for Bolivian exports.
Canada's advice to its citizens was more targeted.
It advised exercising "a high degree of caution" when traveling in the country, but ruled out nonessential travel only in Santa Cruz, Pando, Chuquisaca, Beni and Tarija, where most of the violence has occurred.
Its updates have been frequent and detailed. On Sept. 23, it posted information on the progress of talks between the pro- and anti-government groups, roadblocks and demonstrations, and on Sept. 24 reported the news that American Airlines had canceled its U.S. flights.
Australia and the UK took a similar approach, recommending people "reconsider their need" to travel in the specific areas affected. The UK later issued updates including a stronger warning that people avoid all travel in Pando where martial law was declared.
As of midweek, the U.S. State Department's travel warning — three paragraphs of generalized information attached to two standard paragraphs of boilerplate — contained no new updates, but referred travelers to the embassy Web site where there was news on the flight cancellations and the demonstrations in Santa Cruz.
If the government's advice is going to be truly helpful to travelers, it's going to have to be better than that.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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