After Uganda, new caution
WASHINGTON — The killing of Western tourists in Uganda is a chilling reminder to leisure travelers that destinations aren't safe just because they're reachable.
Prosperity, cheap air fares, and the rise of adventure tourism mean that even those with modest means can now visit the most remote regions of the world. At the same time, many ethnic conflicts are more brutal and unpredictable than ever before.
Government travel warnings can be vague and behind events. Tour guides and host nations want money to keep flowing in.
Personal judgment remains a key part of travel planning.
"There are a lot of conflicts going on in the world," says one senior US diplomat. "But at the same time this is becoming a smaller world and people are traveling more often. It's a bad combination."
That is something that has been highlighted often in recent days.
Last week three Americans were kidnapped by suspected leftist rebels in a remote part of northeastern Colombia. They were in the area to study and help preserve the cultural identity of a native Indian group, the U'wa, and at time of writing were still being held.
Lusaka, the capital of normally peaceful Zambia, has been rocked by a series of 14 bombs, including one that exploded in the neighborhood of the US International School. US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived in Zambia on Wednesday to help the bombing investigation.
In Uganda, tour guides said they thought the area near the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was safe - or at least, safe enough. The violence that has burned through central Africa for years, flaring at various times in Rwanda, Congo (formerly Zaire), and Uganda, has largely left bystanding Westerners alone.
Despite its colonial history, sub-Saharan Africa is not a place traditionally considered dangerous to travelers from Europe or the United States.
"It's quite rare where Westerners are targeted [there] in that sense," says Wunyabari O. Maloba, a professor of African history at the University of Delaware.
A note at the scene of Monday's killings was addressed to "British and Americans" and said "We don't want you on our land."
In 1997, the latest year for which the US State Department has complete figures, there were five attacks in Africa that specifically targeted Americans. There were 23 such anti-US attacks in Europe - and 91 in Central and South America.
Overall, US citizens do not appear to be in increasing danger because of their nationality. That does not mean they are immune from being caught up in violence. One US official says there is a steady "baseline" of anti-US attacks around the world. In 1997, there were 127 attacks around the world that specifically targeted Americans, according to the State Department. In 1996, there were 92, and in 1995 there were 119.
Automobiles - not guns, bombs, or other weapons - remain the most dangerous thing many US tourists encounter.
"The single greatest cause of death for Americans traveling abroad is traffic accidents," says Rochelle Sobel, director of the Association for Safe International Road Travel.
Yet a rise in so-called "adventure" tourism, which takes visitors to such remote sites as the Galapagos Islands or Ugandan highlands, means that both tour guides and travelers need to exercise discretion and responsibility, say experts. Reliance on the State Department's formal list of travel warnings isn't always enough.
That is because the list (at left) consists of general warnings about high-risk nations where the State Department judges US citizens should not travel at all.
The State Department also issues "public announcements" detailing unusual dangers. But some of these can be quite general - such as an announcement Dec. 16, 1998 that warned US citizens to review security practices in light of the continuing bombing of Iraq.
Detailed threat information compiled by embassies is available in "consular information sheets," which tell what train lines in Paris are most popular with thieves, for example.
But these sheets are perhaps less well-publicized than the more general warnings. And the US government, in any case, is far from all-knowing. The Express newspaper of London has reported that Hutu rebels warned Ugandan officials two weeks ago that they would target Westerners - but that those threats were not passed on to diplomats or tour operators.
The group that was attacked was seeking a glimpse of the rare mountain gorrillas whose plight was publicized by the late naturalist Diane Fossey. But some experts question the wisdom of the trip into such a remote area. Hutu rebels were responsible for the massacre of thousands upon thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda before the Hutu-led government there was overthrown, and it is well-known that Hutu fighters have been using the game-rich national parks of central Africa to hunt.
Hutu extremists remain locked in a war with the now Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government, among others.
"There is very little, verging on no, appreciation in this country that possibly the most vicious war in the world is going on there right now," says Barnett R. Rubin, director of peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.