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Published on Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Americans are ignoring US travel warnings

You might think American travelers would snap to attention when the State Department issues warnings. But there are growing signs you would be wrong.

The US State Department in just one month, April, issued nine travel warnings. They covered places such as Iraq, Syria and Mexico. Did anyone take heed?

The federal agency urged all American citizens to actually leave Syria as quickly as possible because of violent clashes between government and anti-government demonstrators.

But a new online poll conducted by travel company Travel Leaders found only 14 percent of the 1,000 Americans in the survey said such warnings would have any impact at all on their plans.

About one in five in the survey said it would have little effect.

Only 18 percent of those surveyed said they would completely alter their travel plans in response to such warnings. The remaining 47 percent said the warnings would have some effect but not enough to make them cancel travel plans altogether.

“Many American travelers tend to find these warnings to be overly dramatic and don't use them as a cautionary aid, “ writes Linda Ripoll in the “Password Without Stress” blog. She goes on:

“The reason behind this lack of respect for State Department warnings comes from the thought that the US Government uses propaganda to keep Americans from exploring certain regions either for political or cultural reasons. Many American travelers look to other Western media such as; the UK, Australia and Canada for the truth about international travel.”

“Most Americans who venture abroad rarely listen to travel alerts issued by the US State Department because they contend they are overly cautious,” writes Bill Briggs at MSNBC.Com.

He quotes Bob Strang, co-chair of New york’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force:

“American travelers are tired, worn out. We’re ten years from 9-11. They pay no attention (to travel warnings).”

There was a “worldwide” travel alert from the State Department only hours after the military killing of Osama bin Laden. But travel observers say the lack of specific cities and ambiguous suggestion of “vague dangers” reinforced the inadequate nature of such warnings.

The State Department has disseminated 26 separate travel advisories and alerts so far this year. State Department spokesman John Echard counters the negative claims by saying he believes Americans who visit other lands "are realizing the information is useful."

Echard acknowledged that the State Department doesn’t have the technology to track or gauge how many people are reading their travel warnings.

"We aim to have them worded as carefully as possible so citizens can really understand what’s going on," Echard said. "We want to ensure that these are pretty forward leaning so they can comprehend them pretty easily."

State Department "alerts" (released in recent months for Egypt, Japan and Tunisia), are meant to inform Americans about "short-term conditions ... that pose risks to the security of US citizens," says the department’s website. "Alerts" are meant to expire in 90 to 120 days, Echard said.

Meanwhile, State Department "warnings" are dispatched "when long-term, protracted conditions ... make a country dangerous or unstable;" Americans are urged to avoid going to those places.

"Warnings" have no expiration date, Echard said.

On the State Department’s website, 34 nations are on the warning list, including Mexico, Haiti, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

For those who do take the warnings seriously, there’s still another layer of updates on possible hot spots. Travelers can register with the federal Fast Traveler Enrollment Program — or STEP.

The free service allows Americans roaming or living abroad to let the government know exactly where they will be so that the State Department "can better assist you in an emergency," according to the agency’s website.

How many Americans have enrolled? "We don’t have a firm number," Echard responds.

By Anne Kao

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