Americans are venturing to remote foreign countries in growing numbers for study, tourism, and business - but not all are doing their homework on the risks of such destinations before stepping on the plane.
Over the past 10 years, the number of Americans heading overseas has jumped by 50 percent, official figures show. Meanwhile, the number of college students going abroad for credit has doubled to 89,000, with rising percentages bound for cheaper and more exotic countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.
The State Department offers detailed fact sheets on risks in each country - covering everything from terrorist threats and tribal feuding to poor drivers and potholed highways. Nevertheless, no fail-safe system exists to ensure travelers read up on the possible perils.
"We put out this information and hope Americans will take it seriously," says a State Department spokeswoman. "But if they ignore it, we can't tell them not to go."
Once Americans fall victim to crime, violence, or other crises overseas, US consular officials can provide limited assistance, such as helping to obtain emergency care or arrange evacuations. But US envoys must rely on local authorities to investigate and solve crimes and punish the perpetrators.
Last week's assault by gunmen on a busload of American university students in Guatemala is the sort of tragedy suffered by US travelers that might be avoided if the dangers are known in advance, experts say. The group was robbed and five students raped during the holdup.
For instance, one of the group's leaders from St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City, Md., indicated that he believed traveling in daylight and keeping the group together were important precautions. But as recently as September, a State Department advisory stressed that most crimes against Americans in Guatemala occur in broad daylight and "in many cases" involve entire tour groups.
In an effort to reduce dangers for students, the Washington-based Association of International Educators has charged an ad hoc committee with drafting safety guidelines for the country's 2,500 study-abroad programs. The guidelines, which are still being crafted, will set down responsibilities for program providers, students, and parents, says David Larsen, director of the Center for Education Abroad at Beaver College in Glenside, Pa., co-chairman of the committee.
Meanwhile, to improve safety abroad for the general public, travel agents and tour operators are strongly encouraged to inform customers of State Department travel warnings or advisories, says James Ashurst, communications manager for the 27,000-member American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va.
But some travel agents and tour operators do a better job than others of conveying warnings. "It's a mixed bag - some do and some don't," says the State Department spokeswoman. The agents do not face legal liability for foreign dangers that exist outside of their control, Mr. Ashurst says.
The State Department, for its part, has expanded the reach of its travel advisories significantly. Whereas its information had been available mainly in print form and by phone, since 1992 a fax service, a consular bulletin board accessible via modem, and an Internet Web site have been created to spread the news. The Web site has a growing audience and now receives 70,000 visitors each day.
For a complete picture of a destination, travelers should consider not only the official US "travel warnings," but also the comprehensive "consular information sheets" available for each country.
The warnings are reserved for worst-case situations and currently recommend that Americans defer trips to 24 countries gripped by extreme disturbances such as civil war. In contrast, the information sheets include detailed descriptions of the risks not only from crime and unrest but also from a range of other factors such as bad road conditions, primitive medical facilities, poor airline records, and hazardous beaches.
* For further travel information:
State Department by phone: (202) 647-5225
Fax: (202) 647-3000
E-Mail: Send request to travel-advisories-REQUEST@stolaf.edu