From ‘Alerts’ To ‘Warnings,’ Travel Professionals Seek To Dispel Confusion Over State Department Cautions
With two terror attacks on popular European destinations in the past six months, travel sellers have been working overtime to explain the nuances of the notifications issued by the U.S. government and other countries on the risks of traveling.
A number of travel-industry experts told TMR that confusion over the State Department’s system for keeping travelers posted on situations abroad is making their job harder.
There are several types of notices, ranging from “alerts,” which usually carry an expiration date and address shorter term situations, to the more serious “warnings,” which the Department says apply in cases “when we want you to consider very carefully whether to go.”
“Our biggest challenge has been explaining the differences because it can actually make a big difference to the client,” said Justin Osbon, of Image Tours, Grand Rapids, MI, who also chairs the National Tour Association.
For example, he said, it could affect whether insurance will cover trip cancellation. “I don’t know of any policies that would cover it in the case of an alert,” he said, but a warning that advises Americans to avoid travel to a destination altogether is a different story.
The State Department website says it has issued 10 alerts and 37 warnings within the past year. Most of the warnings deal with countries with little or no tourism, such as Libya, Afghanistan, and North Korea, but there are a few surprises there too: in the past month, travel warnings have been issued for Mexico and Turkey, but only for specific regions. Still, someone glancing at that list would just see “Turkey Travel Warning,” and would need to look further to learn that it only applies to the southeastern portion of the country.
A further complication, sources said, is when the State Department issues sweeping notices for an entire region, particularly after a major event, with wording that many would consider alarming. That can cause some consumers to cancel plans, even if that isn’t the intent of the message.
Last year, for example, after a rise in terror-related events, the U.S. issued a worldwide travel “caution”—a broad summary of the various threats around the world, from ISIL to Al Qaeda. Most recently, after the attacks in Brussels, it issued an alert that covered all of Europe.
You can point out that you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery than of becoming a victim of a terrorism, but fear is as powerful emotion.
While most of that message simply urges travelers to exercise caution, it also said that “terror groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe” targeting tourist sites and other well-traveled locations. For consumers already on edge due to 24/7 news coverage of the situation, that was hardly reassuring, despite the fact that this alert is due to expire in June.
That distinction has been blurred by overuse of the term “warning” to describe any travel-related alert from the government, said Kieron Keady, vice president of sales and marketing at Expanding Horizons, Tustin, CA. He said that while the number of clients canceling after the Paris attacks was relatively small, the saturation media coverage of the Brussels bombings has given some clients a distorted impression that the entire European continent is at risk.
“After Brussels, one client canceled a very expensive trip to Switzerland because his wife was afraid to go,” he said. “You can point out that you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery than of becoming a victim of a terrorism, but fear is as powerful emotion.”
Attorney and former ASTA official Paul Ruden said “it’s not surprising that consumers react in a panicked way to these statements from the U.S. government.” That’s all the more reason why agents need to be prepared to explain the nuances of these bulletins. “The government is not saying ‘don’t travel’, they are saying ‘be careful, be alert.’ If they meant to say ‘do not travel’ they would have, as they have in the past.”
Of course, other countries also issue travel alerts; the British government has a “foreign travel advice” section that provides extensive detail on situations. It gives Belgium a threat level of Level 3, “a serious and real threat,” and offers updates on ongoing disruptions to air and rail services.
Agents need to proceed cautiously if, despite their best efforts, a client is still wary of going, Ruden noted: “If someone is worried about traveling to Paris, perhaps the agent needs to work on guiding them to choosing another place. Beyond that, there is nothing you can do. The agent has to let the consumer decide.”