While Washington lawmakers review our country's visa waiver program for foreigners, they would do well to take a second look at how the U.S. State Department handles travel warnings and alerts for U.S. citizens traveling abroad.
Too often the timeliness and level of detail provided about security while traveling internationally seems to be influenced more by the desire not to offend or affect tourism in a particular country rather than provide useful information to travelers.
The most recent example is the State Department's pre-Thanksgiving "Worldwide travel alert'' issued after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. Rather than take the time to detail where and in what instances travelers might want to exercise caution, bureaucrats took the easy way out by issuing a generalized warning that seems aimed at discouraging travel anywhere and nowhere based on a vague and continuing threat from "persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations."
Oddly, the alert carries an expiration date of Feb. 24, 2016, as if there was a magic date for U.S. citizens to stop worrying and start traveling again. The sweeping nature of the alert minus any specific information does more to confuse rather than inform. Travel alerts, as well as more serious "travel warnings" issued when the U.S. government advises reconsidering travel all together, can and do effect everything from hazard pay for government officials abroad to travel insurance coverage and decisions by school groups, cruise lines and tour groups to cancel trips. Individual countries lobby hard to stay off the lists. Some succeed. Others don't.
Mexico, Columbia, Israel and Turkey appear on the list of countries falling under a State Department "travel warning," meaning, according to the government's definition, "We want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all." France didn't even generate a travel "alert, a less-serious advisory the U.S. government issues for "short-term events we think you should know about when planning to travel to a country."
Nowhere are the Paris attacks mentioned when you type in "France'' under "Learn about Your Destination" on the State Department's website Nor are there any details under the category of "Safety and Security.'' It's only when you click on "Embassies and Consulates," then "U.S Embassy, Paris'' that information appears, last updated on November 23.
American travelers thinking about traveling abroad, or just curious about how others view the security of traveling in the U.S. will do well to tap into information other governments provide their citizens. The Nations Online Project collects travel warning information from Canada, Australia, the UK and other countries on its website.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade excels at providing updated information in an easy-to-understand format. It color-codes advisories into four tiers, recommending citizens exercise normal safety precautions, a high degree of caution, reconsider the need to travel or don't travel at all. Rather than paint an entire country as unsafe as the U.S State Department tends to do with its blanket travel warnings, Australia tailors its advice to specific areas of each country. Currently it advises exercising a high degree of overall caution in Turkey, for instance; but recommends reconsidering travel to certain areas in the Southeast and advises against travel within 10 kilometers of the Syrian border.
Detailed information on the attacks in Paris appears on its smartraveller website along with updated information about border controls and an overall advice to exercise a high degree of caution when traveling in France.
The U.S. State Department concerns itself with travel abroad, so there's no mention on its website of the recent mass shootings in Colorado and California. When it comes to traveling to the U.S., Australia recommends its citizens take normal safety precautions, but warns that there is "currently a heightened threat of terrorist attack in the United States caused by those motivated by the rhetoric of extremists involved in the conflict in Syria and Iraq."
"The United States has a generally higher incidence of violent crime, including incidences where a firearm (gun) is involved, compared to Australia," it warns, noting "significant variations between and within regions and cities."
Like Australia, the Government of Canada also recommends exercising a high degree of caution while traveling in France. For the U.S., it recommends normal security precautions, but like Australia, points out that "the possession of firearms and the frequency of violent crime are generally more prevalent than in Canada. "