Fred and Karen Walker of Minneapolis watched on television as protesters took to the streets of Cairo, and their hearts sank. They knew that their long-planned February vacation to the Land of the Pharaohs was doomed.
"It is silly to go on a trip if all you're going to see are tanks and burning cars," said Fred Walker.
While scenes of the uprising blasted across TV screens, there was a subtler indication of Egypt's growing instability: The U.S. State Department had issued a travel alert Jan. 28, three days after the first demonstrations, and upgraded that Jan. 30 to a travel warning that urged U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the country.
Egypt may be the most obvious country to warrant concern, but it is far from the only one. Mexico, Kenya and Nepal are among 31 countries that have garnered State Department travel warnings, which make travelers aware of dangers they might not have expected and suggest ways to reduce risk.
Travel alerts are for short-term events such as demonstrations or an outbreak of H1N1. Warnings are issued due to unstable government, intense crime or frequent terrorist attacks, and when "we want you to know the risks of traveling to these places and to strongly consider not going to them at all," according to the State Department website. The site, at www.travel.state.gov, lists all alerts and warnings and offers detailed descriptions of countries worldwide, including traffic safety, medical facilities, entry and exit requirements, crime and security. Travelers can also call the State Department for such information at 1-888-407-4747.
Even popular spots, where most Americans travel without problem, can offer surprises at the website. The information on Mexico, for instance, warns that drug-related violence has increased in Acapulco, some of it in areas frequented by tourists; that Mazatlan has seen a surge in violent crime, and that "rape and sexual assault continue to be serious problems in Cancun and other resort areas."
Warnings should be read closely not only for safety information, but also because it may pertain only to certain areas. In Mexico, violent crime is most prevalent at the border with the United States. The travel warning issued for the country doesn't mention Cancun or Acapulco, but suggests that U.S. citizens defer unnecessary travel to Michoacan and Tamaulipas and to parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango and Coahuila. The warning also says, "Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year. ... The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations." It notes ways to bolster safety, such as traveling on main roads during daytime hours and minimizing displays of wealth.
"We think it is important as U.S. citizens that we use (the State Department website) as a source," said Lori Moline, co-owner of CrossingBorders, a Bloomington, Minn., travel company that organizes faith-based tours to Israel and other Mideast countries. All people traveling with the organization sign a form indicating that they've read the State Department warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as part of the registration process.
"I'd encourage people, especially independent travelers, to pay attention to what the warnings are saying about government personnel who are working there. When personnel or families have been encouraged to leave or avoid certain areas, that is a pretty significant statement," said Moline, who has been parsing the warnings for years. U.S. embassy personnel are allowed into the West Bank only for approved missions, for example, and are restricted to certain roads there. In Colombia, they can travel between major cities usually only by air. The State Department ordered the departure of all non-emergency personnel and family members from Egypt when riots turned violent last week.
Moline also ensures that her clients are registered with the State Department through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (https://travelregistration.state.gov). The service helps the department contact citizens if there is a crisis where they are traveling. It's best to register before departure, especially because some volatile situations leave travelers without Internet access, as was the case in Egypt when the government there blocked cell phone and Internet use.