State Department not budging on European travel warning

The State Department’s terror alert for Americans traveling and living in Europe is alive and well – and nobody cares. Even though there are concerns of a terrorist plot for a “Mumbai-style massacre,” according to Fox News, the State Department isn’t budging and Americans aren’t paying attention. But, the good news is that at least the British haven’t changed their level, which is “severe,” giving us at least some validation and a friend just like us.

Targets being watched include: the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, luxury Hotel Adlon near Berlin‘s Brandenburg Gate and Berlin’s Central Station.

According to Fox News:

State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin told journalists in London on Thursday that the American government’s position on the issue has not changed.

“We don’t view the conditions as warranting us rescinding the (travel) alert,” he said.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, the current U.S. alert is only a step below a formal warning to us to stay out of Europe.

[photo by geoftheref via Flickr]

State Department issues “travel alert” for Europe

The U.S. Department of State has issued a travel alert for citizens visiting Europe. This notification, seconded by countries like Japan and Britain, is of a lesser degree than a formal warning.

“We are not – repeat, not – advising Americans not to go to Europe,” State Department Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy was quoted saying in USA Today. “This is an alert. We put out alerts to ensure that American citizens are aware of possible incidents.”

The alert warns U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe but does not specifically mention a particular country, day, or activity. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks. European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.

Last week, the Eiffel Tower in Paris was evacuated twice due to bomb threats.

What, exactly, does this mean? In short – don’t be stupid. Stay on your guard, and follow recommended procedures, such as registering your travel plans with the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy through the State Department’s travel registration website. If you are visiting a country known for having anti U.S. sentiments, be aware of your behavior and speech in public areas.

This Travel Alert expires on January 31, 2011.

[Flickr image via mikescrivener]

Israel complains about travel warning, gets change

There are two important steps to take in getting what you want in the travel world. First, you have to complain. Next, you need to do it to the right people. Israel did both, and it seems to have worked out fairly well for the country.

The problem started with a U.S. State Department travel warning for Israel five days ago. The Israeli government, according to the Associated Press, griped that it “unfairly singled out an Israeli resort,” Eilat, on the Red Sea. A new warning has since been issued, the AP continues:

The new warning says only that Americans in southern Israel “should be aware of the risks and should follow the advice of the Government of Israel’s office of Homefront Command.” It makes no mention of Eilat.

The Tourism Ministry in Israel noted that the statement from the State Department didn’t include the Jordanian resort Aqaba. As a result:

“This advisory gives a prize to terror and undermines regional stability and the sense of security that Israel gives to everyone who enters the country,” the ministry said. “Differentiating Israel from its neighbor that actually suffered loss of life is improper and lacks balance.”

[photo by kleindavid via Flickr]

Is Thailand Safe Now?

Yeah, pretty much.

A full month has passed since Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the slightly Orwellian-sounding CRES (Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation) gave themselves an all-clear. The official sigh of relief follows a few weeks of fairly intense civil unrest–the chaos of ongoing street protests between yellow-shirted PAD and the red-shirted UDD claimed 88 lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and lost business. The violence only ended following an agreement to hold general elections this coming November. Since then, the Thai government has been implementing a number of important changes in order to return the country back to normal. (But honestly, was Thailand ever normal? I mean, does anyone fly 16 hours to a country because it’s normal?)

Although the emergency decree remains in place, the curfew has been lifted in Bangkok and the country. (That’s a very good thing because Bangkok with a curfew is like going on a date with your parents in the backseat.) A far more encouraging sign is that the US State Department has ended their travel advisory for Thailand, even disappearing it from their website.

If it was anywhere else in the world, this on-again/off-again safety status might seem alarming, but those who know Thailand understand how quickly people settle back into a peaceful, “life-is-good” sort-of existence. It’s also important to remember that the most recent protests were concentrated in very specific areas of Bangkok. Few signs remain that anything was ever amok.

Hesitant tourists are the unfortunate result of any political instability, no matter how short-lived. The resulting drop in foreign visitors to Thailand has instigated a price war among hotels and resorts across the country–if you thought Thailand used to be cheap, it just got a whole lot cheaper. A number of awesome deals are up for the taking, like Thai Airwarys’ Discover Thailand pass (fly to any 3 cities within Thailand for $278).It will take a long time for tourism to recover, for sure. To encourage reluctant travelers, the Thai Tourist Authority is now waiving visa requirements and all fees for any American traveler wishing to stay beyond the normally-allotted 30 days. Already eager to please as a culture, Thai businesses are also bending over backwards to accomodate visitors. All flights are running normally at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, which, for the record, is a far more efficient airport than JFK and LAX put together.

Regardless, travelers to any foreign country should always follow a “Stay Informed” mantra. Before you go anywhere (be it Ireland, Italy, or South Dakota), it’s best to make yourself aware of the political situation. People versus parliament is a universal struggle (see Tea Party) but in Thailand, there is a long back story to the back and forth between people, government and military. There is also a very long history of peace. The beaches aren’t bad either.

(Photo Credits: Ratchaprasong and The Media Slut on Flickr)

Nine foreigners kidnapped in Yemen

Nine foreigners, including three children, have been kidnapped in northern Yemen, the BBC reported.

The foreigners were having a picnic when they were taken on Friday by the Huthi Zaidi, a Shia rebel group. The victims include a British and a Korean citizen. The rest of the group, including the children, are German. The adults were working in a local hospital as part of an international aid effort.

Kidnapping of foreigners is common in Yemen, with more than 200 abductions in the past 15 years. Kidnappings of Yemenis is even more common but rarely makes it into the international media. The kidnappings are generally the work of bandits demanding ransom or local tribesmen seeking political gain. This act by an armed rebel group may herald a new phase in a growing problem.

The Zaidi are a Shia sect and make up 30% of the mostly Sunni country. The two groups have a long tradition of mutual tolerance in Yemen, but in recent years that has soured with the rise of a faction within the Zaidi community that wants to overthrow the government. The present government itself overthrew a Zaidi government in 1962. An article in Middle East Online goes into the politics of this civil war in more depth and also reports on the kidnapping.

Yemen is an incredible travel destination with historic architecture (like the impressive towers shown here), ancient ruins, and a traditional society not yet overrun with tourism. Numerous terrorist attacks and unrest in the provinces, however, have led the U.S. State Department to issue a warning to all U.S. citizens to avoid the country unless absolutely necessary. Many other countries have their own warnings against travel in Yemen, and this latest incident will only exacerbate the problem.

Have you been to Yemen? Please share your experiences in the comments section.