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!

Travel “WARNING”
How realistic are State Department Travel “Warnings”?

Travel Warning
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Tunisia

How realistic are State Department Travel Warnings? Do they create fear?  Are they exaggerated? Are they also a means to avoid possible litigation in the event of a problem?

Let’s look at the case of Tunisia…

On September 11th, 2012, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked and there was the tragic loss of life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other State Department employees. On September 14th, 2012, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the American Cooperative School across the street were attacked, doing extensive damage to both facilities. The Tunis attack was by demonstrators who claimed they were protesting the same film that was said to have provoked the demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Certainly, there is no justification for the actions that took place in Benghazi and in Tunis and the hope is that those responsible are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and that authorities in both Libya and Tunisia vow never to allow the security lapses that allowed for these attacks to take place.
Following these attacks, the US Embassy in both countries sent home all non-essential American employees (see the Warning for Tunisia on this link)
and issued a “Warning” on September 15th stating:
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Tunisia at this time. On September 14, 2012 the Department of State ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Tunisia, following the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. The airport in Tunis is open and U.S. citizens are encouraged to depart by commercial air.”

While Americans represent a very small number of the travelers who come to Tunisia, such “WARNING”s resulted in nearly every university and affinity organization with plans on coming to Tunisia to cancel their plans, as well as thousands of other Americans, as well as American cruise ships who had port days scheduled in Tunis. The “WARNING” was subsequently moderated in October 2012 and again in March 2013, yet the “WARNING” (as opposed to an “ALERT”…which represents a lower level of security concern) still remains.
The United States has been very supportive in Tunisia’s drive for democratization since their January 2011 Revolution, but extending such a WARNING has been very costly in terms of Americans coming to Tunisia; spending money here on holidays, learning about Tunisia and more. No other country has a similar warning.
It is long overdue that such a warning be lifted and/or, downgraded to an “alert”. As a tour operator with operations in Tunisia and the only American company that has remained in Tunisia since the Revolution, we have always placed great importance on our clients’ security and are very well positioned to monitor security throughout the country.  We have American clients traveling around Tunisia at this moment and have been having Americans traveling…all of whom have been unanimous in their expressions of feeling secure. Embassies do not provide security as travelers go around a country, rather, this is a role ground operators play…and WE exercise this role with the utmost concern. All of which begs the question…are State Department “Warning”s exaggerated?
We want to share with you some of the activities that have been taking place in Tunisia during these last seven days…all of them in an atmosphere of security and without incident and all representing the real “normalcy” of life in Tunisia.

See if this looks like a dangerous country to you?  These photos are of activities within the last week…

Photos credited to “Les Foules du Megara”
Photos credited to “Les Foules du Megara”

Photos credited to "Les Foules du Megara"

Members of Tunisia’s Jewish community celebrating the holiday of Passover/Pesach

Members of Tunisia’s Jewish community celebrating the holiday of Passover/Pesach

COOKS, where Tunisians enjoy dinners, coffee and socializing, Facebook.com/cooksfood

COOKS, where Tunisians enjoy dinners, coffee and socializing, Facebook.com/cooksfood

 

"Le Plug" in La Marsa

World Social Forum in Tunisia, where more than 7000 people from several nationalities are here to speak about solutions for a better world

At TunisUSA, we always maintain vigilance when it comes to security, maintaining
a close watch on all activities in the countries where we operate. We wish to reassure our
clients that our programs are continuing in Tunisia, as you read this blog post and
we are here on the ground to answer any questions or concerns that you may have!

Helping Tunisia’s tourism rebound…an industry that employs over 500,000 people and represents over 7% of the country’s GNP, is one of the most helpful steps the United States can take at this time in Tunisia’s road to democratization.

Let’s remove the “WARNING” and stop frightening people who might otherwise wish to come to Tunisia!

 

Jerry Sorkin
Founder, TunisUSA
writing from Tunisia!

http://www.cntraveler.com/travel-tips/travel-specialists/jerry-sorkin

 

Overcoming Diplomatic Hurdles Requires Dialogue!

The other day here in Tunis, where I live much of the year, I attended an event that brought out many families from the Tunis international community of business and diplomatic expats.

Having traveled quite a bit in Iran and knowing many Iranians, I spotted someone who clearly looked Iranian and took advantage of the festive atmosphere to ask the question of a total stranger…”are you from Iran?”  My hunch was correct and he responded in perfect English, expressing interest in my familiarity with Iran. When I told him that I not only have studied Persian culture for years, but have traveled and led tours to Iran, there was even greater surprise.

My house in Tunis happens to be a short walk from where the event was taking place, so I walked home and shortly thereafter, returned with some of the TunisUSA brochures about our tours to Iran and brought them to him. The brochures include numerous photos, as well as quotes from Americans on how warm and welcoming they found Iran and its people. He was clearly pleased!

He noted that he has a brother living in the United States and after chatting a bit more about how cultural travel and engagement brings out the reality of the fact that Americans are quite beloved in Iran, he added that it is true, Iranians love Americans. It is unfortunately, only the people who represent our two governments where there is a lack of communication and trust…he added!

This conversation may have been simply one more of the frequent interactions I have with people from Iran, though in this case, as it turns out, I was speaking with an Iranian diplomat!!!

Travel is one of the best forms of diplomacy. The Stanford University Alumni Association has a trip to Iran this month, with over twenty participants and a wait list! Better understanding and improved relations only come from dialogue! Both sides of political debates must continue to work at dialogues, as there are often more possibilities than we know when we make the effort to dig a bit deeper and know one another better!