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Travel during Times of Political or Environmental Turmoil

When disaster hits a region, such as the earthquake, tsunami and radiation threat in Japan, or the political upheaval in the Middle East, governments take necessary measures to evacuate their citizens. Travel warnings are widely issued against non-essential travel to those countries. However, once the situation settles, some travelers still consider visiting nations with political or environmental troubles.

Government-issued travel advisories deter travelers from going to countries with political turmoil or natural disasters. After last month’s disaster in Japan, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert against non-essential travel to the country. It also warned against non-essential travel to Egypt during the recent political protests and eventual overthrow of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Furthermore, U.S. citizens were advised to leave Egypt, and travel companies evacuated their clients. For the most part, tour operators, travel companies and travel agents will abide by government travel advisories.

Yet some travelers choose to disregard these warnings. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter Marc Champion chronicled his family’s trip to Egypt in early March, noting that “there may never be a better time to visit the land of the pharaohs. Cairo’s hotels are offering deals, flights are largely empty, tour companies are discounting, crowds are non-existent and, make no mistake, Egyptians want you here.”

Photo by Annika S. Hipple

One morning, Champion and his wife took their kids to Tahrir Square, where many of the 1,000 people gathered wanted to pose with the children. “Thank you for coming to our revolution,” said one of the protesters. The Egyptian uprising began on January 25, and within nine days, 1.1. million tourists left the country, according to then-Vice President Omar Suleiman (cited by Champion). Only now, over a month after the resignation of Mubarak on February 11, are travelers slowly coming back. Yet Champion notes that even though there are still tanks in Cairo, he and his family didn’t feel unsafe. It seems that Egypt is safe for travelers despite the State Department warnings.

There is a difference between a State Department travel alert, such as that issued for Japan, and a travel warning, such as the one issued for Egypt. A travel alert addresses short-term events and is canceled as soon as the immediate danger is over, while a travel warning reflects ongoing problems. According to the State Department website, travel warnings “remain in place until the situation changes,” sometimes for years. However, as a recent Budget Travel article points out, tour operators are starting to organize trips to Egypt again even though the travel warning is still in place.

According to Alan Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle Corporation, which owns the travel brands Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel, the decision to continue tours to Egypt was made after “extensive meetings with ground operators, community leaders, and tourism officials,” Budget Travel reports.

Safe to travel to Japan?

According to its website, the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently “not advising general restrictions on travel to Japan.” However, the organization does advise avoiding areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami because of “disruptions to essential services such as transport and electric power.” They also advise that travelers read the FAQs regarding the concern of nuclear radiation exposure in certain areas.

Some countries are specifically warning citizens not to travel to areas that may be affected by the earthquake and threat of radiation from the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant. According to Smartraveller, an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and and Trade website, Australian citizens are advised “not travel to Tokyo, areas surrounding Tokyo and Honshu north of Tokyo due to disruptions to essential services, infrastructure damage, aftershocks and continuing uncertainty about the status of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.”

The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office also advises travelers “against all but essential travel to Tokyo and north east Japan given the damage caused by the 11 March earthquake, the resulting aftershocks and the tsunami.” The also advise British nationals in Tokyo and north of Tokyo to leave the area because of the situation at the Fukishima Nuclear Power Plant.

Despite these warnings, Travel Weekly cites recent research showing that devastation in a country has only a short-term impact on travel. According to a study done by research analyst TNS in early February, during the riots in Egypt, more than half (55 percent) of adults said they would be deterred by a terrorist attack from booking a destination, 44 percent by civil unrest or riots, 37 percent by a natural disaster, and 28 percent by government collapse. Despite this, almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) of the more than 1,600 people surveyed had not changed, postponed or cancelled a trip because they were concerned about safety or security in the region. The two biggest worries for travelers were getting sick overseas and losing their passport. These statistics show that although a large percentage of travelers are worried about travel to a country experiencing political or environmental strife, it is not an overwhelming concern.

The U.S. State Department encourages U.S. citizens who are traveling abroad to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which allows travelers to register contact information and travel details before departure. The State Department can then communicate travel alerts, warnings and updates from embassies, as well as contacting the traveler in the event of a crisis.

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