The day before the June 28 terrorist attacks on Istanbul’s international airport, the State Department had updated and reissued its warning to U.S. citizens traveling in Turkey to stay away from crowds at tourist destinations and to “remain vigilant” in public places such as transportation hubs.
Within minutes after the explosions, the department warned Americans, via Twitter, to avoid the airport. Over the next 24 hours, nearly two dozen messages reminded travelers to call concerned loved ones and advised them on how to begin rebooking flights home.
It has been a busy year for the department’s Consular Information Program. Since the end of May, advisories have included warnings about travel to Bangladesh, Haiti, Kenya and Venezuela.
U.S. citizens also were alerted to “the risk of potential terrorist attacks throughout Europe, targeting major events, tourist sites, restaurants, commercial centers and transportation.” As it does every six months, the State Department advised against any travel to Iraq.
Americans and their government are not the only ones unnerved by the chaos sweeping many parts of the world. Some countries are equally worried about their citizens traveling here.
After a United Arab Emirates tourist, wearing a traditional robe and speaking on a cellphone in Arabic, was detained at gunpoint by police in Ohio over the Fourth of July weekend, that government cautioned travelers to “refrain from wearing the national dress” in public places while traveling in the West.
On Friday, the Bahamian Foreign Affairs Ministry said it had “taken a note of the recent tensions in some American cities over shootings of young black males by police officers.” It advised all Bahamians to “exercise appropriate caution,” and asked “young males” from the predominately black country to “exercise extreme caution . . . in their interactions with the police. Do not be confrontational and cooperate.”
Over the weekend, as demonstrations were held across the United States, the Embassy of Bahrain in the United States advised its nationals here, via Twitter, to “be cautious of protests or crowded areas occurring around the U.S.” The UAE embassy issued a similar message urging “UAE nationals, who are in the U.S., to stay away from places of protests and demonstrations,” according to WAM, the UAE news agency.
U.S. statistics on American travelers overseas, and foreigners visiting here, tend to lag, and it is not clear whether the annual number of travelers venturing to other countries — up by 4.4 percent in 2015, for the sixth consecutive year of growth, according to the United Nations — will fall in 2016. Americans venturing abroad made an estimated 90 million annual trips in previous years.
Fluctuating exchange rates and low oil prices have benefited international travel, the United Nations said in a January report. But, it said, “as the current environment highlights in a particular manner the issues of safety and security, we should recall that tourism development greatly depends upon our collective capacity to promote safe, secure and seamless travel.”
International visitors to this country increased by 3 percent, to a record 77.5 million in 2015, according to the Commerce Department, after deep dips immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2008 global economic downturn.
Fifteen of the top 20 countries posted record numbers of visitors to the United States, including 18 million Mexicans, 5 million Britons and 2.9 million Chinese. The United States makes exponentially more money from foreign visitors than any other country — $221 billion in 2014, according to the most recent World Bank figures.
For American travelers, the number of official warnings has increased, said a senior State Department official familiar with the information program, although “it’s kind of hard to say is it due to increased threats or just a general ability to communicate more easily with the public” through social media, in addition to more traditional warnings on State’s website.
U.S. officials overseas are encouraged to use Twitter, Facebook and other applications to transmit security messages and other communication to traveling Americans, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the State Department. Travelers are encouraged to sign up with the department’s Smart Traveler program to receive urgent messages.
There are several different kinds of advisories, each indicating the level of threat and recommended action. Emergency Messages, emailed and distributed via social media to Smart Traveler enrollees, are sent “if something is fast-breaking . . . a terrorist incident taking place in a particular city,” the official said.
Information about imminent attacks — “it is a short fuse, very significant” — is sent out via a Security Message.
Travel Alerts apply to more general security situations ranging from civil unrest to warnings of major weather events. “If the threat to U.S. citizens is chronic, we would then put out a Travel Warning,” the official said. Alerts and warnings “can range in their advice, from ‘Consider the risks of travel’ to ‘Don’t go at this time’ or ‘Defer nonessential travel.’ ”
Countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which depend heavily on tourist money, often object to such notices. “Obviously, many countries do not like the fact that we have issued a Travel Warning relating to security threats in their country,” the official said. While they are informed in advance that a warning is about to be posted, “we do not, in any sense, clear anything with them. . . . It’s not a collaborative process with host governments.”
Turkey took a significant financial hit late last year, when the Russian government banned charter flights and package tours there as a sanction after the Turkish military shot down a Russian warplane operating in neighboring Syria. Last week, after Turkey apologized, the Russian government said the flights could resume.