Some advice about travel advisories.

The murder of Westerners, including a New Zealander in Libya, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” of regime change in North Africa and the Levant, has raised the profile of travel advisories as effective guides to personal and institutional safety of foreign travelers in such unstable regions. Libya is classified as High Risk in an around Tripoli and Misarata extending west to the Tunisian border and Extreme Risk pretty much everywhere else in the country by most Western states, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US. Syria is, understandably, considered to be an Extreme Risk environment by virtually all Western governments. The body of the Kiwi who was murdered, a female friend of a contractor to an Italian petrochemical firm, was found 100 kilometers west of Tripoli in a High Risk area. For her and her British companion, as well as several Americans recently, the risk was terminally extreme.

Both governments and private entities issue travel advisories, which are most often associated in Western minds with unstable or undeveloped states and regions in which lawlessness is rife (the same is largely true for advisories given by non-western governments such as the Japanese, Singaporeans or Chinese). The advisories may focus on political or criminal threats to foreigners in general and citizens in particular depending on the situation (for example, ethnic Chinese are more likely to be the target of socioeconomic-based ethnic violence in Melanesia and Polynesia than ethnic Europeans, and female travelers are particularly vulnerable in many places because of local cultural mores). Yet these advisories are not always as neutral as they may appear at first glance and hence need to be treated with caution and in broader perspective.

Put bluntly, it is erroneous to assume that governments, much less many private entities, issue objective and value-free travel advisories. They do not.

Government travel advisories take into account the diplomatic, security and economic relations of the issuing state with the targeted country. As a result, taking everything into account and (however short-sightedly) thinking of the bigger picture moving forward, there is a tendency to downplay security concerns where the countries in question are allies or have good foreign relations, whereas there is an inclination to paint an adversary or hostile country in a more negative light regardless of the objective situation on the ground. States are loathe to annoy their partners and allies, or those that they wish to cultivate for diplomatic or economic reasons, by issuing alerts and advisories of high or extreme risk in them. They may be pressured by corporate actors to downplay the risk of travel to those countries. Thus, even if the situation on the ground is hazardous for tourists or business travelers, the advice offered in such circumstances often does not raise above that of a caution about medium to moderate risks to personal and institutional security.

The concern with maintaining good diplomatic relations is compounded by the failure of many Western governments to fully appreciate the fluid nature of political and social events in designated countries, specifically the impact of regime change, latent social unrest and pre-modern cleavages on mass collective action. Confusing mass acquiescence with popular consent often leads countries to overestimate the degree of political support sustaining a foreign ally or partner. That in turn leads them to formulate their travel advisories in ways the underestimate the possibility of regime failure and the attendant risks associated with it.

Given resource constraints in diplomatic and intelligence agencies in many countries, limitations on diplomatic presence and in-country expertise in foreign contexts can limit the ability of advising governments to gather accurate, time sensitive and nuanced information on local conditions. Consequently, they often rely on the host government or foreign partners for situational knowledge, which itself may be more general than specific. This is then passed on by diplomatic outposts (some which may not be located in the country under scrutiny) to the home governments, often without vetting by other security agencies. That is a problem because for a number of reasons both host governments and foreign partners may not provide accurate reads of the local conditions being assessed.

Bureaucratic in-fighting amongst government agencies responsible for offering input into official travel advisories adds to the problem of objectivity. Different foreign policy-related agencies with input authority on travel advisories may have different information from their foreign counterparts with regard to the countries being assessed (say, intelligence, police and military agencies versus diplomatic, customs, health or immigration agencies).

Look at it this way: whatever the concerns of one or more agencies, would others be willing to accept harming a fruitful diplomatic, security or economic relationship because of the particular, if valid, concern about citizen travel to a particular country? And even if the foreign affairs bureaucracies agreed to defer to the concerns of one or a few agencies, would all Ministers necessarily find it politically expedient to accept the bureaucratic judgement, be it in an election year or not?

Continuity, stability, reliability and future mutual support are the most precious commodities of foreign relations, but the interest in them often blinds governments to the inherently weak or unstable nature of the regimes that appear to offer them. It also leads to acceptance of what foreign allies depict as local reality as fact when the truth may be otherwise. Thus time and time again Western governments have been caught by surprise at mass upheavals against seemingly stable friendly (most often authoritarian) regimes, with their citizens visiting and resident in countries where popular revolts occur often victimized as a result in part because they were lulled into a false sense of security by official travel advisories that downplayed the risks to the friendly regime, and by extension, foreigners who could be construed as associated with it.

This has occurred throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, SE Asia and Latin America in years before, and is evident in the moderate advisories given to Middle Eastern diplomatic, military and trading partners by Western governments in spite of clear indications of simmering restive and anti-foreign sentiment in them.

Similarly, travel agencies, tour companies, airlines and other business invested in tourism, as well as those that see profit in resource extraction and commodity export, have an inherent disposition to downplay risks because their livelihoods depend upon sustaining and increasing the number of tourists and investment dollars in such ventures. Absent an obvious and compelling threat such as a civil war like those in Syria and the Central African Republic, profit driven private entities will, like official government warnings, often couch their advisories in moderate terms. Here too they are handicapped by a lack of objective risk analysis because they often rely for their local knowledge on in-country partnerships that also depend on tourist and investment dollars for their livelihoods. In such relationships no one wants to upset the foreign traveler or investor gravy train so risk is downplayed in all but the most dire situations. As two of many examples, Kenya and Thailand offer proof of that.

NGOs and IOs tend to more pragmatic in their travel advisories and risk assessments because they have less profit at stake and more lives and reputations immediately in play. Travel guides tend to be objective but superficial in their risk advice unless the local situation is obviously dire. This is not surprising given the breadth and focus of travel guides (think Lonely Planet as an example, although to its credit it does address gender and LBTG travel issues where possible), which are not oriented towards divining risks to personal and collective security but instead focus on geographic, cultural and entertainment features of any given place.

The best risk assessments and travel advisories tend to come from insurance firms (although some of their assessments have been proven to be suspect, such as those involved in the determination of national credit ratings). Likewise, reputable international political risk and open source intelligence firms are more objective and forthright about the situation in any given country because their client’s welfare is often at stake, and maintaining client relationships is most important for the success of such firms. In fact, insurance firms regularly seek external assessments from political risk and open intelligence firms so as to limit the possibility of and mitigate their liability in the event a client disregards their in-house advice.

The difference here is that reputable political risk and open source intelligence agencies tend to canvass as wide an array of sources as possible before they put their names on any assessment, including travel advisories. Moreover, such firms can tailor their assessments and advisories to client needs, for example, but specifying the relationship of competing market actors with local political factions and (where present) criminal or political armed groups in specific foreign contexts (the relationship between irredentists and oil firms in the Niger Delta comes to mind, but also applies to resource extractive firms and indigenous militias in regions like the Southwestern Pacific and Central Africa).

Needless to say, reading news about a travel destination is a very good way of getting abreast of the local context. Many non-European countries have English, French, Italian, Spanish, German or Dutch language newspapers (many of these  a colonial legacy), and outlets like the BBC, VOA and RT radio services also provide useful updated information on local conditions. Similarly, social media may offer better awareness of tactical or real-time situations, although one should always be aware of editorial and personal bias in any news provider, so-called mainstream or not. After all, when it comes to taking advice and reading the news, a discerning traveler is a prepared traveler.

Reliable information on local conditions is as important for those who deliberately travel to unstable or conflict zones such as reporters, diplomats, military personnel, security contractors and ideological “internationalists” who join in foreign fights as it is for the casual or unwary traveler. Regardless of circumstance, one should know what they are getting into and prepare (or avoid) accordingly.

In light of the above, travelers should not rely exclusively on the advisories of governments or private entities with a direct interest in downplaying risk assessments in foreign countries. This may seem obvious but in fact is not, as many people assume that their governments and the companies that transport, house and entertain them overseas have their personal and group safety as an overriding concern.

They do not, and are insured against episodic calamity as a result.

15 thoughts on “Some advice about travel advisories.

  1. I remember when the UK government issued a travel advisory for North Japan during the Fukushima incident calling on all UK citizens to leave.

    Of course the stupid NZ government did nothing!

  2. Thanks for this post, Pablo. Being registered on the government’s Safe Travel website, I get the occasional travel advice email, and I inevitably find myself thinking, “What utter bollocks”. Part of it is being in China, and the embassy here being responsible for China and Mongolia, neither of which cover small land areas. But part of it is just being aware of the situation around me, as much as anybody can, and comparing what I’m seeing and hearing with what the advisory says. What you’ve written here has highlighted things that I think I should’ve realised some time ago.

    I like your advice on keeping up with the news and mention of countries often having newspapers in a variety of languages. Yet another reason to ditch the old “but everybody is learning English” laziness and learn some foreign languages. But also, I find that of the major English-language media, only Al Jazeera pays any serious attention to Africa, and if you want to know about what’s going on in Africa, it’s a really good idea to learn French. The French media covers Africa much better than any of the English-language media bar Al J. Also, reading Chinese newspapers over lunch and occasionally dinner, as is my habit, keeps me better informed about what’s going on here in Beijing than my friends and colleagues who don’t read Chinese, and yes, that is despite the censorship. I’m guessing you read Spanish, and I suspect you’ve seen similar phenomena.

  3. Chris:
    I agree that reading French is a very useful for understanding local conditions in Africa. I also think command of Mandarin is increasingly important not so much for what beijing has to say, but what the Mandarin language press outside of China has to say about its internal and external relations.

    I am lucky to have good reading comprehension of Spanish and Portuguese, with a fair bit of Italian as well (the former from my upbringing and the latter from my efforts to read Gramsci, Crocce and Bobbio in their original language as a grad student). Since these are all colonial languages they cover a good range of countries and regions.

    I should also mention that internet search vehicles are pretty useful resources when it comes to risk advisories, since they cover both governmental and non-governmental assessments from an array of sources (to even include blogs) and tend to be updated often.

  4. Normally I like the length, breadth and depth of the posts here on KP but in this case this one should have been at least 1000 words shorter. Way too much verbiage.

  5. Daniel:

    I realize that in this age of twitter and texting reading a 2000 word essay can be a chore, but it can be done. Besides, as I have said before, that is why people like me have Ph.D.s–we Pile it High and Deep!

  6. I don’t know about American univerisites, Pablo, but when I was getting my PhD my supervisors urged me to trim excess verbiage, rather than pile it on.

  7. Now now Jacques, try to address the post rather than continue the sidebar. Of course everyone is taught to be parsimonious when writing. I was taking the piss with the pile it high and deep reference (which should have been obvious). As I said to Daniel, a 2000 word blog post may be tedious for some to read, but I had my reasons for covering the topic in that length. Cutting 1000 words as he suggested would have left the essay incomplete in terms of the range of issues addressed.

  8. Pablo:

    I like reading your work and analysis (and in most cases the in-depth analysis is what makes KP so good) but this article is just way to wordy on an issue in which you surmise nicely at the end and set up well at the start but the middle (the examples) are just not needed to be gone into in such detail, its obvious from how you set it all up and from the subject itself.

    I say this as someone who has had to read and mark lots of written work in the past and sometimes an economy of means/editing approach makes the message clearer and easier to understand. Volumous examples or too much detail can cloud what was an effective argument from the start by distracting from the simple points you make to set out your position and the simplicity of the message itself.

    Id hate to suggest it but the middle section would have been better served by a more bullet point like approach of flash pointing the issues (ie Govt, Insurance, private intel, inter agency competition…) as being factors which can affect an advisory. That way you could have gotten back to the more succient points you made at the end about some caution being needed when taking advisories into account.

    The middle of the post was basicaly an expansion on the “check and know your sources” argument which given the standard type of analysis on KP most (regular) readers would be aware of.

    Nonetheless dont take this too harshly, most of the time your stuff on KP is spot on in tone and length, ya just cant win them all that all.

  9. Thanks Daniel, I will take that on board. Rightly or wrongly I felt it necessary to elaborate on the whys, hows and who’s of advisories.

  10. Curious. I’m supposed to be marking essays as I type this. I would say that the pendulum in the writing teaching industry has swung a bit too far towards concision. I’m forever begging my students to please include more detail and expand on the points they’re making. Far too many people these days edit their writing down so much they’re missing evidence they need to actually prove the points they’re trying to make. I found Pablo’s article to be Just Right for the blog format.

  11. The side bar on word length has been interesting. Having written books, academic articles, book reviews, technical and working papers, newspaper and magazine op eds and articles, government documents, briefing papers for government officials (many bullet points in those), government position and strategy (White) papers, power point presentations, consulting briefs and now blog posts, I see the value as well as the difference in all of them.

    My approach to blog posts is to write as if they were magazine opinion pieces or short academic articles without the references. As I have mentioned before, blogging fills a niche for me–it is not academic or professional writing, and often more personal and/or ideological than the former.

    Daniel’s point was that I could have said everything necessary in this post in 1000 rather than the 2000 words published. I am not so sure but take his point.

    I do not personally use twitter, which I see largely as the province of the glib, narcissistic and verbal disaster-prone (some exceptions notwithstanding), so have not worked on parsing out pearls of Pablo wisdom in 140 characters or less. Nor do I text much, as I prefer speaking with someone or writing at length. But I have seen the pernicious influence of the shorter formats in student writing over the years, to the point that in my last years at Auckland and the National University of SIngapore I actually received essays containing text speak.

    My tendency, which may have something to do with growing up speaking and writing in Spanish (which is a much more expressive language than English), has been to overwrite rather than underwrite. That has been a fault throughout my academic career and clearly persists in my post-academic life.

  12. Another technology ruining students’ ability to write is translation software, although that obviously applies only to students writing in a second language. It’s interesting, because it makes certain charactistic mistakes that people writing in a second language don’t make, and glancing at an essay then telling the student they used translation software gets some funny reactions. Some try to deny it, then I go and point out all the key signs of translation software. There is still no subsitute for just learning a second language properly, and I guess there never has been and never will be any shortage of students looking for short cuts.

  13. So I thought we can leave Libya off the travel list for this year.
    I go to Thailand a lot where the revolution is less violent by virtue of the fact they are almost all Buddhist.
    The political shambles over there is seen as a class thing, the corrupt Shinawatra Government openly buying votes from the poor North East farmers at the expense of Bangkok and south.
    It is estimated that around 15% of all Government contracts return as kick backs to the Thaksin Government .
    Corruption, bribery and nepotism are completely entrenched.
    It is reasonable to say that Thaksin is evil and sees the entire country as his fiefdom.
    There is no possibility of resolution to this dilemma until some has the guts to shoo* Thaksin.
    There will be a military coup this year.
    People have been avoiding travelling to Thailand, because protestors took over the airport a few years ago.
    Its safe though for Westerners, we are money to them.

  14. Sorry, Paul, but I don’t see how “almost all Buddhist” equals “less violent”. Just off the top of my head I can name several predominantly Buddhist countries that have seen political violence in this or the 20th century: Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Myanmar/Burma, and yes, Thailand. A certain region in southwest China whose name starts with a T could also be added to the list. You might notice that in most of those countries the violence tended towards the extreme end of the scale.

    And how does being Western or any kind of foreign keep anybody safe in a context of political violence? It only takes one hothead to start screaming about Yanqui or Chinese or whatever foreign meddling for people perceived as outsiders to become targets.

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