If tomorrow morning Africa and the Middle East simply vanished, you have to wonder what would happen to the State Department functionaries who write the travel warnings at travel.state.gov. The poor people would have little to do all day. Of the 28 travel warnings issued in May, 12 were for African nations and 7 were for countries in the Middle East.
You won’t be surprised by some of the countries on the list—or the reasons for the warnings. We’re talking about Al-Qaeda terrorists in Lebanon, suicide car-bombings in Algeria, and attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Sudan is noted for its assassinations of two U.S. Embassy staffers and the conflict in Darfur. Political unrest, rebel roadblocks, street crime—the warnings are as plentiful as they are disturbing.
The State Department posts travel warnings when “protracted conditions” make a country dangerous, according to Michelle Bernier-Toth, director of the department’s Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management. “The whole purpose is to make sure people have enough information to plan their travels overseas.”
What you may not know is that many of these countries, despite their failings, market themselves aggressively as tourist destinations. True, they don’t do much of that salesmanship in the United States. But elsewhere, at travel trade shows and in glossy brochures, many of these dangerous—and perhaps not-so-dangerous—places celebrate their attractions, ignore their shortcomings, and generally try to impress travel agents, tour operators, travel writers, and average vacationers.
At the 2009 ITB travel show in Berlin, for instance, the country of Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula, had a booth where promoters were playing traditional music and offering complimentary maps showing tourist highlights (the capital city of Sana’a, for example, is a UNESCO World Heritage site). What the promoters neglected to mention was the violence in 2008 directed at the U.S. Embassy and tourists.
Of course, not all the countries on the State Department warning list are trying to be the next Bali or St. Bart’s. Poor little Burundi is still mopping up from its late civil war, for instance. The Central African Republic has its hands full with a nasty little rebellion in the north, not to mention a plethora of highway bandits on the Berberati-Carnot-Baoro-Bouar-Bozoum road. Somalia is better known for pirate ships than cruise ships.
Yet plenty of countries are trying to cash in on the profits—and good public relations—that tourism can provide. But just because a country is listed by the State Department doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s hazardous to your health. You’re not likely to be mugged in Eritrea, murdered in Iran, or carjacked in Uzbekistan. And there can be plenty of upsides to visiting a “dangerous” country: Eritrea, for one, has everything from Art Deco buildings to a scenic railroad and a gorgeous coastline.
So do these places deserve your business, or merely a fleeting glimpse of your rapidly disappearing backside? It’s not always an easy call. The State Department warnings can be as commerce-inhibiting as a big-time critic’s pan of an overhyped Broadway turkey. On the other hand, if your safety is at risk, those travel warnings could save your life.