HEADS UP: TRAVEL WARNINGS;
Safe or Not? It Depends on Whom You Ask
New York Times, J anuary 28, 2007
By JOSHUA KURLANTZICK
IN the days after Bangkok 's New Year's Eve blasts, which killed three people and came on the heels of a military coup, many travelers seemed confused about how to respond. Some travelers appeared unfazed; one Briton hurt in the bombings, Paul Hewitt, quickly told reporters, ''I can't see why this would deter me from coming back.'' Expatriate friends of mine wrote that Bangkok seemed normal, and they planned to spend New Year's Day engaged in one of Thailand's favorite activities, cellphone shopping.
Some travelers trying to decide whether Thailand was truly safe looked to the old standby, the State Department's travel information, which is broken down into Public Announcements, Consular Information Sheets and Travel Warnings, all available at travel.state.gov. The Public Announcements ''disseminate information quickly'' about short-term threats to security abroad; the Consular Sheets provide detailed, broad background on safety and other issues in foreign countries; and the Travel Warnings advise Americans to avoid a country or to take significant precautions while visiting.
Yet the State Department's reports, while useful and thorough, can also prove confusing. The most serious category, Warnings, includes nations like Indonesia where there are real terrorist threats but generally low levels of violent crime against foreigners. Warnings do not include countries popular with tourists like South Africa that have high rates of assault and murder, which are more likely to affect travelers than terrorism. The Public Announcements sometimes seem too broad to follow: One recent announcement warns of terrorist threats on nearly every continent. Consular Information Sheets offer serious cautions about so many relatively peaceful countries, from Greece to Vietnam , that they can lose their impact.
But savvy travelers know not to rely solely on the State Department reports. Many look to the Web sites of the United States embassy at their destination, which tend to be more detailed. Travelers also turn to the advisories of the British and Australian governments. Australia offers nuanced advisories that use factors ranging from terrorism to crime, to grade nations' safety on a continuum from one to five, with five being the most dangerous. Australia 's advisories are available at www.smartraveller.gov.au, and tourists can sign up for a handy e-mail service that automatically sends Australian updates about a particular place. ( Britain 's advisories are available at www.fco.gov.uk -- travel advice is available on the left-hand side of the page.)
Local English-language newspapers can prove even more vital, and the Web sites www.thebigproject.co.uk/news/ and world-newspapers.com offer links to Web sites of English-language publications from The Times of London to The Times of Central Asia. Often, the local papers offer early warnings of events that later threaten tourists. In Thailand , The Bangkok Post and The Nation, English-language dailies, reported credible talk of a coup well before the Thai military actually seized power in September.
''This had been predicted in the press for weeks,'' a Bangkok Post editor, Songpol Kaoputumptip, told me just after the coup.
Many of the local papers' Web sites also contain discussion forums, which travelers can use to assess the state of local concern about anything from avian flu to air safety. Local news media also cover mass emigrations, the best sign that people in that country are genuinely afraid. After the 2002 Bali bombing, Indonesian papers reported few exoduses of middle-class Indonesians to Singapore , suggesting that locals thought the nation remained stable. By comparison, during rioting in Jakarta in the late 1990s, many Indonesians fled the country.
Conversely, the local press often understands best when seemingly disturbing developments should merit a yawn rather than a canceled vacation. While I was visiting the Philippines last winter, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had declared a state of emergency, warning that the government feared a coup attempt. But when I wandered the crowded streets of Manila 's shopping district, I noticed that virtually no one seemed worried. Later, local reporters told me few Filipinos feared a real coup.
Local blogs in English can serve a similar function as English-language newspapers. For example, the Web site asiapundit.com has links to hundreds of blogs from across Asia , some of which contain debates about pressing political and security issues.
Travelers can provide foreign safety tips, but Web forums catering to backpacking budget tourists, who often spend more time than high-end travelers dealing with local police, aggressive hawkers and other such difficulties, generally prove the most detailed. Lonely Planet's thorntree.lonelyplanet.com contains pages for nearly every country.
Other sites collate travel information into one accessible location. The comprehensive site allsafetravels.com compiles travel reports, warnings and breaking news from many countries, while airsafe.com allows visitors to research many facets of air safety in foreign nations.
LESS comprehensive than allsafetravels.com but far more thrilling, comebackalive.com, the official Web site of Robert Young Pelton, author of ''The World's Most Dangerous Places,'' offers firsthand reports from the slums of Haiti and similar places. It also has a discussion group focusing (not surprisingly) on alarming questions, like '' Congo , Rwanda , or Colombia as a Solo Female Traveler?'' or ''How Do I Know if I've Gotten a Concussion?''
Ultimately, nothing beats old-school local knowledge -- contacting people on the ground before you go, including locals not affiliated with the travel industry. Local bloggers and journalists, identified through e-mail addresses on the Web sites of local papers, are often willing to answer e-mailed questions.
I learned the hard way. Before embarking upon a recent trip to East Timor, I spoke with few Timorese, though I did talk to one American friend who had returned from Timor and warned me about safety issues.
Still, I disregarded her caution. Days after touching down in Dili, Timor 's capital, locals filled me in with more detail. My guide, Chico Tilman, who was receiving frequent frantic calls from his wife, told me of an upcoming clash between disgruntled soldiers.
I was lucky. Even as armed soldiers from opposing factions rumbled into Dili, the city remained relatively calm. I even had time to sneak out of town on a short snorkeling trip. Days after my plane departed Dili for northern Australia , the capital erupted into violence, with militias torching parts of the city.