State Department alerts and warnings: How accurate are they?

Demonstrations in Damascus and other Syrian cities prompted the U.S Department of State to advise U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel in the area last week. It is the latest of a string of what seems a never-ending parade of alerts and warnings to avoid travel some place in the world. But just how bad is the situation on the ground during these events?

The news is familiar: “We urge U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Syria at this time and U.S. citizens currently in Syria should consider leaving,” the State Department said in a statement posted on its website late Thursday. Recently we could have substituted “Egypt”, “Japan”, “Libya”, “Thailand” or a number of other countries for “Syria”.

Sitting here at home in the United States, those places and the unrest or events leading to those alerts and warnings seem far away. Often, those on the ground, those who have been there, tell a different story.

Last Summer in Thailand, Stephen Greenwood described the scene in Gadling’s Travel Talk series.

Thailand has been in and out of the news for years. Listed regularly on alert lists, an ongoing border dispute, among other issues, can fuel demonstrations which trigger travel alerts and/or warnings to be issued.

In January, security forces, some 3000-strong at times, dealt with potential bomb attacks, a large rally by the rival “Red Shirts”, and a Yellow gathering near Government House where they accused Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of failing to defend long disputed territory from Cambodia.

Ok, so this is not Mainstreet, USA. Got it. But are U.S. Department of State alerts and warnings overly-cautious?

Maybe, but there is a big difference between an “alert” and a “warning”.

The U.S. Department of State says “Travel Alerts are issued to disseminate information about short-term conditions, either transnational or within a particular country, that pose significant risks to the security of U.S. citizens. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups, anniversaries of terrorist events, election-related demonstrations or violence, and high-profile events such as international conferences or regional sports events are examples of conditions that might generate a Travel Alert.”

Right now there are travel alerts issued for

Syria 03/24/2011
Tunisia 03/10/2011
ICC Cricket World Cup 02/17/2011
United Kingdom and Gibraltar (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) 01/31/2011
Uganda 01/24/2011
South Pacific Cyclone Season 12/23/2010

Travel Warnings are another matter and “are issued when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country. A Travel Warning is also issued when the U.S. Government’s ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff.”

The countries listed below meet those criteria.

Syria 04/03/2011
Japan 03/30/2011
Egypt 03/29/2011
Bahrain 03/22/2011
Algeria 03/16/2011
Mauritania 03/11/2011
Afghanistan 03/08/2011…and a whole lot more

Certainly, caution is advised when visiting any of these countries who appear on an alert or warning list but travel is possible in most cases. Still, conditions on the ground can change quickly. This is probably a scene you would not want to be a part of: