US travel alerts: People just stopped listening

Recently the United States issued a global travel alert and closed their embassies around the world based on an unspecific threat. Whether such non-specific alerts do more harm than good remains.

US travel alerts: People just stopped listening

Recently the United States issued a global travel alert and closed their embassies around the world based on an unspecific threat. Whether such non-specific alerts do more harm than good remains. Canceling elaborate and often expensive travel plans based on such vague information simply isn’t an option for most people. At the same time, every alert that isn’t followed by an actual incident gives people one more reason to ignore them.

“It’s like calling ‘Fire!” 15 times,” said consultant Peter Tarlow, President of Tourism and More Inc., in College Station, Texas. “As more people ignore it, the value of the warning decreases rapidly.” Peter Tarlow also had been a long-time contributor to eTurboNews (eTN).

Consider, for example, the color-coded alert system the Department of Homeland Security implemented in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Although it spanned five colors, ranging from green (low) to red (severe), it remained at orange (high) from August 2006 until the system was discontinued in April 2011.

“People just stopped listening,” said Tarlow.

At the same time, Tarlow cautions that heeding such warnings also carries a risk. The individual traveler who stays home may be safer but forgoing international travel, he says, actually plays into the hands of those who seek to instill that fear in the first place.

“People don’t travel to see the same mall they can see in their hometown; they travel to learn about different cultures and to try different foods,” he said. “Tourism represents the fight against xenophobia.”

The issue takes on even greater significance for business travelers, especially for those whose corporate travel policies are tied to government warnings.

“We follow State Department advisories pretty conservatively,” said Adam Hils, a research director for Gartner who is traveling to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in September. “Our main assets are our people and we don’t want to compromise their personal safety.”

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The issue is two-fold, he said. In the short term, U.S. travelers currently in the Middle East won’t have access to the resources of their government as long as embassies remain closed. Longer term, the alert, which is in effect until August 31, could put a chill on future travel plans.

“People may be slower to book — and probably further out — until they see how things shake out,” he said.

And grounded business travelers and their employers wouldn’t be the only ones to suffer, says Tarlow.

“The Middle East may not get as many visitors as Paris or Rome or Washington, D.C., but think of all the business that’s conducted in the Middle East,” he said. “If we stop doing international business, how much do we hurt ourselves?”

The most recent global travel warning was issued by the US State Department on August 2. It reads:

The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August. This travel alert expires on August 31, 2013.

Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services. U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.

We continue to work closely with other nations on the threat from international terrorism, including from al-Qaida. Information is routinely shared between the U.S. and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats.

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