Travel advisories and human nature

The US and Canada, the countries of Europe, and others like Australia and Japan, regularly issue advisory notices to their citizens informing them about the risks they might face when traveling to particular countries. These normally address issues such as crime, terrorism or public health.

In contrast it is unclear how many Caribbean nations have either in force or have issued, as it were, similar travel advisory notices in reverse. From a quick, albeit unscientific online check, I could find evidence of only one such Caribbean notice: the recent and now famous advisory issued by the Bahamas Government about travel to the United States.

This recommended Bahamians to take particular care when visiting cities affected by tensions following the shootings of young black males by police officers. The notice advised all Bahamians traveling to the affected cities to exercise appropriate caution before going on to warn young men in particular ‘to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police,’ not to be confrontational, and to cooperate. It also counselled its citizens not to become involved in political or other demonstrations under any circumstances and to avoid crowds.

Although the advice was perfectly reasonable, and similar notices have previously been issued by Canada and Germany about certain US cities, the advice from the Bahamas Foreign Ministry created a minor storm in the US media. The suspicion, voiced on CNN, in its usual language of US exceptionalism, was that the notice following the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota had political intent or was in some way retaliatory.

The Bahamas Ministry of foreign affairs said that there no basis for suggesting this, the notice meant no more or less than what it said, and was similar to advisories that other countries have issued when necessary.

Unfortunately, this then led to the US media looking more closely at the homicide rate in the Bahamas and republishing official US travel advice, which is particularly stark when it comes to New Providence.

What this serves to illustrate is the tension between governments and tourist boards in regions like the Caribbean that want visitors to believe that all is well and that nothing will trouble a vacation, and the legal and moral responsibility that governments in source markets say they have to inform their citizens and the travel trade about the likely risks in certain destinations.

As you might expect the practice of issuing travel advisories is most common in developed countries with the notices usually being prepared by the local Embassy or High Commission in conjunction with senior officials in capitals.

The objective, diplomats say, is to meet citizens’ expectations that their government will warn them in advance about risk, and have in place the appropriate consular services to protect them if required. For the most part they recognise that too strident or disproportionate a warning could result in economic damage to the country concerned and its tourism industry.

However, the same diplomats also observe that the published advice has to respond to events and media coverage, matters they observe that reflect, in some countries, government’s inability to tackle or solve crimes against visitors, to address crime more generally or, as is the case in some smaller Caribbean nations, an unwillingness to admit the serious nature of the crimes involved or their frequency.

To confuse matters, when it comes to travel advisories, different governments in the region’s key visitor source markets adopt different approaches.

For example, the website of the US Embassy in Nassau has a strongly worded and detailed four-page security advisory, but to find the equivalent warnings from Canada or the United Kingdom, you have to click through from a relatively innocuous foreign ministry summary page to links that set out the risk to visitors from crime or the zika virus.

So contentious have some country’s travel advisories become that behind the scenes they are the subject of difficult high level political or diplomatic exchanges about both the detail and the robustness of the language used.

That said, most visitors exercise a high degree of common sense, recognising that whether you are in Miami, London, Bridgetown or Havana there will always be danger, crime and violence and public health issues.

The problem, if that is the right word, is that vacations exist to encourage us to relax and seek experience, and increasingly to want the authentic. In the process we perhaps become too trusting, and paradoxically more liable to be caught up in the unexpected, or in dangerously evolving situations, in ways that no travel advisory can ever address.