When is safe…safe enough?

WARNINGS” in the travel industry can have a dramatic impact on bringing down a country’s travel image. As NBC’s longtime Travel Editor, Peter Greenberg notes,  FEAR is a 4 – Letter Word!

Americans in particular, would be shocked to read how many countries that the U.S. State Department has posted “WARNINGS”! (NOTE: In State Department speak, a “WARNING” is more severe than an “ALERT”!)

Conde Nast Traveler’s Wendy Perrin notes, she is receiving many queries from readers asking about whether to travel in Muslim countries, in the event that there is an American strike on Syria.  As she notes…”These are places where, yes, pockets of anti-American/anti-Western sentiment do exist and where there could possibly be some sort of incident over the next few months. Of course, the same is true of certain neighborhoods in London and Paris. And New York City too, for that matter.” How-to-stay-safe-abroad in uncertain times?

Following a recent lecture I gave in the US two weeks ago about the democratization efforts in Tunisia and how Tunisia’s path has been very different from that of countries like Libya, Syria and even Egypt. I noted that despite Tunisia’s political quagmires within their elected Constitutional Assembly and two political assassinations this past year, attacks on foreigners are extremely rare, cafes are full and outdoor concerts have been taking place throughout the summer in Tunisia. A prospective traveler asked would we cancel tour programs to Tunisia if the US attacked Syria?  One might ask, should the constant reports of gangland killings and decapitations in some northern Mexican border towns keep foreigners from visiting the country to the north…the United States???

The U.S. stands alone in maintaining a “WARNING” on Tunisia, so much so that Embassy personnel are under great restrictions as to their own travel freedom within the country. The many American travelers we see in Tunisia, who travel throughout the country, repeatedly tell us that they felt safe throughout their travels and always greeted warmly. Of course, when Embassy personnel are in a locked down mode and maintain a “WARNING” for over a year, it is hard for them to gather a realistic pulse for the feeling of security for the average traveler.  Fortunately for Tunisia, the US “WARNING” stands in contrast to other countries who do maintain travel advisories, but do not discourage their citizens from traveling, as evidenced in these recent reports in travel industry publications. Tunisia Starts to Win Over Tourists and Is Tunisia on the way to attract tourists again?

I have received inquiries from numerous friends within the Arab and Muslim world asking about safety concerns in the US, citing the senseless rampage in downtown Washington, DC this past week that resulted in 12 people being killed, or the multiple attacks with assault weapons that have taken place in American schools, shopping centers and movie theaters in the US over the last year. This past summer, a Tunisian teenager expressed fear about his family’s upcoming trip to the United States, citing the countless news broadcasts from the U.S. involving gun violence.  My response to him was that these are very isolated incidents and the media reports on what creates news…not the normalcy on everyday life!  This advise made much sense to the Tunisian teen, who has no hesitation going out to cafes and visiting his friends late into the night. Fortunately, he joined his family in the US for his first trip ever and had a wonderful time.

Echoing the advise of some of the travel specialists noted above, the best way to approach travel is to make yourself aware of your surroundings, avoid wearing jewelry or ostentatious clothing that may bring unwanted attention and maintain ongoing communication with people who are literally, on the ground in the country your are planning to visit. Then pack your bags and enjoy your travels!