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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Travel Advisory: Call the State Department Before You Head Overseas : Warnings: Recent developments in the Soviet Union underscore the value of checking the recorded information available daily. Most tourists don't.

August 25, 1991|PETER S. GREENBERG

Last Monday's attempted coup in Moscow prompted the U.S. State Department to issue an immediate warning advising that American citizens defer all travel to the Soviet Union.

For most travelers who may have had plans to visit the area, such official information probably was unnecessary. News organizations covered the breaking story practically around the clock, thus the potential danger for tourists was easy to see and understand.

But not all travel advisories are so clear-cut.

For example, the State Department has also issued advisories for Cyprus, Jamaica and Indonesia, as well as Greece, Japan and Mexico.

Does this mean that you should delay or cancel your trip if you were planning to go to these countries?

Not necessarily. Fact is, most Americans travel to foreign destinations each year while unaware of any advisories in effect.

"Hundreds of thousands of Americans travel abroad each year, but only a small percentage bother to check on our advisories for certain countries or regions," says a State Department official. "But in the wake of terrorist acts like Pan Am 103, and lately, the war in the Persian Gulf, more and more U.S. travelers are calling to check on these advisories before they leave on their trips."

First, a description of a travel advisory.

Actually, there are three types of advisories: notices, cautions and warnings. The first, a travel notice, is the least serious advisory. It's simply a notice advising travelers of an inconvenience: an unusual customs regulation, labor strike, special road conditions or small-scale outbreaks of disease.

Travel cautions include information that may not affect all American citizens traveling to a particular region, but they do contain important--and useful--information. An example: Americans attempting to exchange currency on the black market in Kenya run the risk of being arrested and detained. Another notice alerted Americans to problems they might have bringing home religious artifacts from Thailand. Certain statues of Buddha can't be taken out of the country without a permit. Violators can be arrested.

The most serious advisory is a travel warning, in which the State Department advocates that all American citizens defer nonessential travel to all parts of a country. These are issued when the State Department believes that there exists a situation with the potential for actual physical danger--terrorism, natural disaster, civil disorder--to Americans.

On July 12, the State Department issued its first travel caution on the situation in Madagascar, advising U.S. citizens of "high political tension" in the country.

On July 25, the caution was amended to advise Americans to defer all nonessential travel to Madagascar.

On Aug. 13, the caution was upgraded to a full travel warning for Americans to defer all travel to Madagascar because of violent political demonstrations and youth gangs that have been attacking foreigners.

"We don't wait for an injury or death count before issuing a warning," says the State Department official. "We have to constantly gauge the ability or desire of local foreign governments to protect foreigners. You just can't wait for the patient's temperature to hit 106 degrees before declaring they have a medical problem."

There are those who argue that this wasn't always the case.

Although State Department travel advisories have been issued since 1978, and made available to the general public on department phone lines since 1988, there has been a substantial increase in the number--and types--of travel advisories issued since Dec. 21, 1988. That date was a watermark moment for the State Department.

On Dec. 5, 1988, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki had received an anonymous telephone threat that a bomb would be carried aboard a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to New York within the next two weeks. On Dec. 14, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow posted and distributed a security bulletin describing the Helsinki warning to embassy personnel.

Three months later, the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, formed in the aftermath of the sabotage of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, wanted to know why State Department personnel were warned, but U.S. citizens were not.

At a March 9, 1989, hearing, Raymond Smith, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, testified: "When I looked at this (bulletin) and thought about it, I said to myself, 'If I were planning to travel during this period of time, would I take this information into account?' And the answer was yes. And the second question I asked myself was, 'Well, what right do I have to use this information and not to make it available to other people?' "

There appeared to be a double standard. And while the State Department insisted that there was no double standard, the number of travel advisories issued since Lockerbie has increased dramatically.

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