I read travel warnings and take them into consideration. They are useful if detailed, recent and taken together with other sources of information. But in my opinion they are primarily a cover-your-ass thing. They are used by tour companies and exchange programs for the same reason…to mitigate against extreme criticism and lawsuits in case anything happens to a tourist both of which affects the bottom line as well as reputation.
The reason I don’t rely on them is because I have been in too many places that have received ridiculous travel warnings. In 2002 there was trouble in Kashmir, so the US state dept issued a warning for the entire country of India! We found out that even foreign businesses were ignoring it. We were, however, refused a visa extension in India…we think because of the warning.
There is a large amount of local and expat hostility in Oaxaca where I live because of travel warnings and expats who live here just roll their eyes and shake their heads when they are issued. In 2006-7 there was a popular uprising and yes people were killed…killed by government thugs trying to take down the leaders. An American Indymedia videographer was also killed…by a govt thug. The result was that hotels, guesthouses and other businesses were closed and hundreds if not thousands of people lost their jobs. Mexico depends largely on tourism so alarmist warnings can decimate the local economy.
I was in Thailand during the coup in 2006 If you didn’t know the coup was going on you wouldn’t know anything was happening. Same thing this April and May 2010 in Bangkok when tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied the two high-end hotel/shopping and business districts and upwards of 90 of them died including 4 journalists.
My guesthouse was only a couple sky train stops from the main staging area. But if I didn’t know what was going on I would never have known by just going out to the street. A friend and her husband were staying in their condo just a couple blocks away from the staging area and never saw anything. Most local violence is directed by locals against locals. My guesthouse workers were a great source of info. At least one of them joined the demonstrators every day after work.
I think the important thing is to take responsibility for your own safety by talking to locals, comb the internet travel forums for eye-witness information, find out who is doing responsible tweeting, which political and personal blogs to pay attention to and read the local press…most countries have English-language news sources. Ask locals what they think of them. It didn’t take me long to know the score in a general way. Probably the most useful thing when you are in a country is to talk to long-term expats. They are probably better sources of information than the locals because they monitor the situation for themselves and usually know all sides of an issue.
And PAY ATTENTION! I was in the Saladaeng business district of BKK as late as 5pm just a few meters away from the military the day they entered it. They were all hunkered down in the overhead skytrain flyways. Everyone expected them to try to rout the demonstrators there but no one knew when. My pharmacist said, come back tomorrow and I will have your meds. I said, oh yeah???!! You could feel the tension in the air. I didn’t go back and sure enough that night and the next day locals and tourists alike were gravely injured in attacks that included tear gas and bullets with more than one local killed.
I follow Thai politics because my son lives there and I go there often so was reading and hearing rumors long before the trouble started. All you have to know is the political history of a country to know when there will be trouble. Most of us know beforehand when we are going to a country. Start researching as soon as you know.
Often an issue will quickly develop into a crisis WHILE you are there…not before, even if you are aware of the political environment as with the two events in Thailand.
I learned my lesson to research when I decided to move down to Oaxaca June 1 2006 although it wouldn’t have made a difference really. I got off the plane at night…got up in the morning in the hostel and went outside to explore. Much to my surprise I found 70,000 striking teachers camping in all the streets of the Centro. I moved into my pre-arranged apartment and 4am on the 14th woke up to gunshots, church bells and helicopters. The municipal police were trying to rout the teachers from their encampment in the Zocalo (central plaza).
This was to be my biggest education about corrupt governments with no rule of law, no economic development with money going into pockets instead, poverty, popular uprisings, history, US foreign policy, and bureaucrats in the pockets of foreign companies and a frightened middle class that I had ever had…first hand.
I spent the next 7 months reading, video taping, taking photos, documenting, witnessing and reporting until the President of Mexico finally sent in the federal riot control police in November who swept the Centro, picked up a couple thousand people off the streets, (not one foreigner) beat up a lot of them and hauled them to jail…raping some. This time, however, we saw it coming and I and some friends drove up to a mountain pueblo for the day even though if you are not participating tourists will be left alone.
No one wants an international run in. In Mexico this includes the narcos who will shoot the marijuana growers and runners if they make trouble with tourists. The locals wanted us out there because it made them feel safer and more difficult for the government to lie…although it did not stop it entirely.
It was amazing how similar the causes, uprising and government response was in Thailand. If you are already there develop local contacts and do some more research. One of the best immediate ways of gauging the environment is by following the tweets of the place you are going or are in.
Editorial comment: I tell people that if they find themselves in a country with upheavals going on for heaven’s sakes, don’t complain because it is “ruining your vacation.” You are in their country and they are in charge of making their history. They are not there to entertain the tourists unless their jobs depend on it.
Having said all that you will hear about the random tourist who will get into trouble. But to provide some perspective I recommend reading “World’s Most Dangerous Places” by Robert Young Pelton. Here’s what he has to say:
“The United States has a very comprehensive system of travel warnings,” says Pelton, “but conveniently overlooks the dangers within its own borders. Danger cannot be measured, only prepared against. The most dangerous thing in the world,” he says, “is ignorance.” Welcome to Dangerous Places…”no walls, no barriers, no bull” it says in the preface. “With all the talk about survival and fascination with danger, why is it that people never admit that life is like watching a great movie and–pooof–the power goes off before we see the ending? It’s no big deal. Death doesn’t really wear a smelly cloak and carry a scythe…it’s more likely the attractive girl who makes you forget to look right before you cross that busy intersection in London…
It helps to look at the big picture when understanding just what might kill you and what won’t. It is the baby boomers’ slow descent into gray hair, brand-name drugs, reading glasses, and a general sense of not quite being as fast as they used to be that drives the survival thing. Relax: You’re gonna die. Enjoy life, don’t fear it.
To some, life is the single most precious thing they are given and it’s only natural that they would invest every ounce of their being into making sure that every moment is glorious, productive, and safe. So does “living” mean sitting strapped into our Barca Lounger, medic at hand, 911 autodialer at the ready, carefully watching for low-flying planes? Or should you live like those folks who are into extreme, mean, ultimate adventure stuff…sorry that stuff may be fun to talk about at cocktail parties, but not really dangerous…not even half as dangerous as riding in a cab on the graveyard shift in Karachi.
Living is (partly) about adventure and adventure is about elegantly surfing the tenuous space between lobotomized serenity and splattered-bug terror and still being in enough pieces to share the lessons learned with your grand kids. Adventure is about using your brain, body and intellect to weave a few bright colors in the world’s dull, gray fabric…
The purpose of “Dangerous Places” is to get your head screwed on straight, your sphincter unpuckered and your nose pointed in the right direction.”
BTW, in addition to an ice storm in the NW upon my arrival and the tsunami in Thailand while I was there (that almost took the lives of my son and his wife), I am developing a certain reputation and friends are jokingly warning me to stay away from them.