How to evaluate travel warnings


Warning signEvery holiday destination has its dangers, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find someone warning you about them. In the case of off-beat places like Somalia and Yemen it takes very little to convince most people to stay away: phrases like “Al-Qaeda controlled cities” and “high risk of kidnapping” are pretty compelling evidence to keep such places off your summer holiday plans.

But it seems that even popular destinations have their share of ominous sounding problems – and official government warnings to back them up. Thailand suffered a double-whammy of anti-government protests and avian bird flu, with the result that the Australian authorities warned its citizens against all non-essential travel.

Should I go or should I stay now? - The Clash

Mexico was at the epicentre of the 2009 swine flu outbreak and at one point 80% of its tourists cancelled holidays leaving normally jam-packed beaches deserted during the busiest season. The press and world governments united in drumming up the hysteria – despite the fact that 10 times more people died from normal flu over that period than from the allegedly terrifying epidemic.

Then there was India, which suffered from the Mumbai terrorist attacks, resulting in more warnings against travel to that country and a multitude of cancelled travel plans.

In each of these places, the reality on the ground was very different to the picture painted in the press. Travellers who stuck with their plans enjoyed empty beaches, amazing service, discounted prices at restaurants and a distinct lack of congestion at the major attractions.

As the global swine flu scare fades away, the Mumbai bombings are long past, and Thailand once again regains its appeal and flood of visitors, what can we learn from travel warnings, and how can we decide whether or not to take them seriously?

Start by looking at the source of the information:

  • Authorities
    Governments, airlines and travel authorities are nervous about getting sued – so if there is the slightest hint of danger they feel obliged to issue stern warnings. That way they are covered in the unlikely event the worst case scenario becomes reality. So if there’s a slim chance of a traveller catching swine flu their official position is “don’t go”.

  • Press
    The press have a different goal: they want to sell papers or magazines, and there is nothing better than a crisis to boost sales. So although they will publish largely accurate information, they will emphasise the negative and inflate the dangers to make the story more compelling. So while it’s true that swine flu killed 20 people in Mexico, they don’t tell you that 150 people died from regular flu, just like they do every year.

  • Tourist boards
    On the other end of the spectrum are people representing the tourist business, desperate to emphasise the positive and make sure the tourists keep coming. It is their job, after all, to market the destination, but they can’t really claim to be impartial. You’ll seldom find a tourist authority that outright lies, but you will often find them spinning the positive to Pollyanna proportions.

  • Travellers
    With people increasingly going online for their information, the opinions of other travellers becomes very influential. Through blogs, forums and Facebook posts you can get first-hand, fresh information regarding the crisis on the ground. Just type Mexico + holiday + blog into Google, specify posts made in the last 24 hours, and voila! – you get fresh facts to help make your decision. During most of the 2009’s crises we found travellers on the ground giving positive accounts of their experiences and providing persuasive reasons to go visit despite official warnings to the contrary.

    Bottom line

    So while the beleaguered travel industry dreads the next crisis to deter travellers from leaving the safety of their own homes, the lesson to take from the disaster-packed last year is to choose your source of information carefully. Sample the official sources of information but put more stock in the opinion of people just like you, with no vested bias towards either side of the crisis coin.

    Good sources of information include:
    • Forums – active posts from the front line
    • Bulletin boards – a great source of conversations
    • Travel blogs – millions updated every day from the road
    • Twitter – see trending topics or search for destination
    • Hostels – email or phone the owner in the destination