Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
HOME E-MAIL JOE PRINT SEND A LINK 2016 COLUMNS JOE'S ARCHIVES SEARCH
Fair Warnings. Or Maybe Not.
July 14, 2016 -- As you plan your summer travels, many nations urgently want you to know there's one place that you may not want to visit.
"Don't use ATMs after dark, especially if you are alone," warns the travel advice from Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "Check no one has followed you after conducting your business."
"Mass shootings continue to occur in public places," notes the travel advice from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs.
The country is plagued by "racial tensions" and "shootings of young black males by police officers," notes the Bahamian government. The French and German governments are appalled by the proliferation of guns and urge their citizens not to fight back if menaced by someone with a firearm. LGBT travelers are threatened by discriminatory laws, more than a few governments add. Bahrain tells its travelers to avoid protests and crowded areas. The United Arab Emirates cautions its travelers to avoid traditional dress because one of its citizens was hospitalized when a hotel clerk accused him of terrorism and armed cops later roughed him up.
And let's hope you don't end up like that poor Emirati. "Medical treatment is expensive," warns the British foreign office. The Australian government is even more explicit. "Medical costs are extremely high. A visit to a doctor for even minor complaints can cost several hundred dollars." The Canadian government suggests its citizens "pack a travel health kit" if they plan to be "away from the major city centers."
What an awful place, right? Who'd go there?
Just one problem. You're already here. All those warnings from foreign governments describe real or imagined conditions for travelers headed to the United States of America.
Don't be so shocked. While you may not have heard about the attack on the man in Arabic dress and the Irish government's advice about ATMs is oddly specific, you can't argue with the warnings about gun violence, racial tensions, mass shootings or LGBT laws. I've given you the same advice about crowds as Bahrain offers its citizens. And since we're the only developed country that treats medical care as a pay-as-you-go privilege, you can't be annoyed that other nations tell their citizens about our approach.
The warning last week from the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs revived the debate about how the United States is perceived around the world. It's even become something of a parlor game to compile the unexpected things foreign governments tell their travelers about us. And Fawlty Towers hilariously flayed the odd quirks of American travelers 40 years ago.
This is serious business, though. What international governments tell their travelers inevitably invites claims of politic interference, insinuations of diplomatic insult and suggestions that no government agency should be taken seriously when they assess international conditions.
All of those charges have been levied at the U.S. State Department, too. It compiles a so-called Consular Information Sheet for every destination on the planet. When it considers conditions hazardous, it issues a Travel Warning or Travel Alert.
And for all of the more than 30 years that I've covered business travel, I've had to write stories explaining how the State Department is once again overhauling its system of travel advice. Sometimes the claim is that the State Department is hard on our perceived enemies and soft on our allies. Sometimes the claim is that State highlights terrorism at the expense of equally relevant everyday travel traps like street crime.
"Travel advice is the definition of a no-win scenario," one career State Department official told me via email. "If we write too tough, we get complaints that we're trying to wreck a country's tourism industry. If we're too measured, we get pushback from our embedded personnel who say we're soft-pedaling what American visitors need to know."
In its own words, the current tripartite State Department system generates a Travel Warning when "we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all." A less crucial Travel Alert is issued when State says there are short-term events "we think you should know about when planning travel to a country." The third level of State coverage is the Consular Information Sheet issued for all countries and periodically updated.
Although Travel Warnings and Alerts are important, they sometimes chronicle the exceedingly obvious. After all, do you need to be reminded that it's unwise to travel to Iraq, Syria or Yemen? But there's also a Travel Warning for Mexico concerning the "risk of traveling to certain places due to threats posed by organized criminal groups." There's one for Turkey, too, specifically warning against travel to the southeast part of the country bordering Syria.
In the long run, though, the most valuable output from the State Department for travelers are those mundane Consular Information Sheets. They contain the important basic details--passport and visa requirements, the location of U.S. embassies and consulates--and cheat sheets on a wide variety of topics: local laws, health conditions, travel considerations and other relevant details.
If you're driving in Canada, for example, the State Department suggests you pause when a light turns green because Canadians are tough on drivers who run red lights. You're also not allowed to turn right on red on the Island of Montreal. And it's illegal to even possess a radar detector in several provinces. Who knew?
And while the Consular Information Sheet for France has what seems a frivolous section on joining the French Foreign Legion, it also warns travelers with mobility issues about the difficulty of navigating the Paris Metro. The Consular Information Sheet for Britain warns of "imposters posing as undercover police officers and 'fining' tourists for bogus minor offenses."
I read Consular Information Sheets for, if not pleasure, at least to stay current with conditions in countries I frequently visit. The more "exotic" the destination you plan to visit, the more I urge you to start your homework with State's output.
Besides, you never know when you find an interesting diplomatic tit-for-tat. If you think Ireland's warning about using American ATMs is peculiar, consider what our Consular Information Sheet says about Irish ATMs.
"Thieves use distraction techniques such as waiting until the PIN has been entered and then pointing to money on the ground or asking for loose change," State says. "While the ATM user is distracted, another person will quickly withdraw the cash and leave.