Travel warnings do more harm than good

And they are a waste of time.

As long-time observers of and participants in the African travel trade, we have seen dozens of travel warnings issued for various African countries at one time or another over the last 25 years, ranging from Kenya (a ‘repeat offender’) to Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia (no surprise), Egypt, South Africa (there was a time when it was not the flavor of the day), Zimbabwe (can you spell Mugabe) and several others.

We don’t know of anyone who has escaped disaster by changing his or her plans because of a travel advisory, but of course you can’t prove a negative.  What I can say is that the dire warnings rarely if ever come to pass.  People travel to Africa all the time and effectively none of them become the victim of anything they might read on a travel advisory, except in the ‘small print’ towards the end, dealing with petty crime and car accidents.

When people do become the victims of gun-toting jihadis as was the case in the Eastgate attack in Nairobi in 2013, it is just bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like being under the falling branch of a tree while out jogging, or in a car skidding on a patch of black ice on a highway in Minnesota.   There’s preciously little you can do about it, least of all plan to avoid it.  Accidents and bad luck can ‘get you’ anywhere in the world, and a travel advisory is not going to make one whit of a difference.

Fortunately, most of our clients are savvy travelers who know that the world is not a perfect place and that none of us live in little cocoons of safety, no matter where we reside.  So by and large, they have followed our advice, ignored the travel warnings and happily traveled to places like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda, with nothing befalling them except good times and great memories.

Kenya is a good case study in the futility of travel advisories. Having recently returned from a trip there, it is alarming to realize the wide discrepancy between outsiders’ perception of the situation in the country, and the reality of it. There may be issues in a few isolated areas but everywhere on safari (Rift Valley, Laikipia & Samburu) I felt and appeared to be totally safe.

Bert about to ride a camel at Sabuk

Bert about to ride a camel at Sabuk June 2014

In fact, there are few if any safer travel experiences than being on safari in Kenya or anywhere else in Africa, due to the almost complete absence of other people, speeding vehicles, and the usual trappings of civilization.  Almost no crime, no tension, just a peaceful and relaxed environment with friendly people totally intent on helping you make the experience the best one of your life.

Travel warnings are a well-intentioned attempt by civic-minded governments to protect their citizens traveling abroad, but they are a particularly blunt tool.  Isolated incidents of violence and intimidation – regrettable and tragic as the consequences may be to those involved – rarely make an entire country unsafe to visit.  This is exactly the case in Kenya.  Probably 95%-plus of the country – including the safari circuit – is perfectly safe, but this gets lost in the  publicity surrounding attacks and in ‘travel advisories’ which discourage all but essential travel to the country.

Travel advisories play right into the hands of the perpetrators of violence and indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians.  How so?  By discouraging travel to a specific area or country, they cause sometimes irreparable and long-term harm to the tourism sector and hence the economic well-being of mostly emerging economies.  They result in thousands of tourism jobs being lost with a ripple effect into many other areas of the economy such as transportation, food & agriculture and the retail trade.  Stretch this over a number of years and you have entrenched and worsening unemployment, unrest, perhaps even political instability – all of which can be ameliorated with a vibrant tourism sector and strong and growing economy.  And all of which can be exploited by persons or entities wishing to harm a country or its people.

Wildlife conservation is yet another unintended ‘victim’ of travel advisories.  It is self-evident that the presence of visitors in wildlife-rich areas acts as a deterrent to poachers.  Poachers operate much more effectively and devastatingly so when there is nobody around such as when camps are closed for the rainy season or when the number of visitors dwindles for whatever reason.  Such as being discouraged by inane travel advisories.

Discouraging all but essential travel to an area or country is out of proportion with the intended outcome which is to protect a country’s citizens from harm or injury as a result of a terrorist event.  The specter of terrorism anywhere in the world pushes emotional buttons and the mass media exaggerate its risk and prevalence.  Deaths caused by terrorist events are tragic and shocking but they are a miniscule number compared with almost any other cause of death and bodily harm.

If you travel to Kenya is it likely that you will become a victim of terrorism?  No.  You are about 1,900 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack and more than a 100 times more likely to succumb to the effects of contaminated food.  Worried about being crushed to death by your television or furniture or being hit by an asteroid?  Of course not – and those two events are about as likely to cause you harm as you are to fall victim to a terrorist.

So do we stop driving because driving results in accidents and death?  No we don’t.  And we don’t stop flying because aircraft occasionally (but very seldom) crash.   By the same token it would be daft to stop eating because of the potential risk of dying from contaminated food.  Avoiding all risk is not possible except perhaps by seeking refuge in a remote cave somewhere.  Which is not how we as free people choose to live.

Which makes travel warnings all the more pernicious.  They purport to tell you how to live your life and what to do or not to do.  Are people not capable of making their own value judgment about the safety of an area?  Of course they are but ‘official’ statements made by high-profile government agencies carry a lot of weight.  Which is unfortunate because discouraging travel to disadvantaged areas of the world – which are often the areas hit by travel advisories – is a sure-fire way to stymie development and progress.

As it is, many US states and cities are prone to chronic gun violence which results in the death of thousands of people every year, a lot of it gang-related. That, together with sporadic yet all too common and totally unpredictable mass shootings likely make large parts of the USA a far more risky proposition than the distant plains of the Masai Mara or the swamps of Amboseli.  Where are the travel advisories when you really need them?



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