Arnie WeissmannIn this summer of discontent, it seems the world is coming unhinged.

Those in the travel industry watch news about Ebola and chikungunya viruses with professional as well as personal concern as portions of West Africa become no-fly zones and discussions about "Chik-V" become part of the Caribbean all-inclusive sales process.

Violence simmers and flares between Russia and Ukraine, and the tour business to Russia all but dries up. The West hits certain Russians with sanctions, and Russian officials in a Siberian port deny entry to Silversea passengers on a scheduled visit.

As a result of conflicting sovereignty claims between China and Japan, China informs cruise lines that ships leaving its ports can't visit Japan.

The causes of violence in the Middle East and North Africa become only more complex and deeply entrenched. After a record-breaking six months, El Al load factors on flights to Israel drop significantly, and Ya'lla Tours severs its commercial ties to Qatar Airlines and cancels tours to that nation, accusing it of supporting ISIS and Hamas.

Volcanos rumbling in Iceland put the industry on red alert.

Enjoying your summer break?

There's not much that we as individuals, citizens or businesspeople can do about viruses or volcanos. But how we counsel travelers and the public affairs divisions of our professional associations can make a difference.

When I was traveling through the Palestinian Authority four years ago, a T-shirt vendor in Nabulus, after ascertaining I was American, began expressing his frustration at U.S. foreign policy and refused to serve me. My guide spoke to him quietly in Arabic for a few moments before we left.

What had he told the vendor?

"There are countries, and there are individuals, and you shouldn't confuse the two," my guide had said.

Words to live by. And sadly, the sentiment could be expanded to differentiate between stateless militias and the countries where they operate and the religions they claim to represent.

What got me thinking about all this was, of all things, a communication from Norwegian Cruise Line to travel agents. It stated that U.S. government sanctions against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria restricted Norwegian (and other lines) from carrying citizens from those countries unless they reside in a nonsanctioned country.

Apparently the U.S. government, too, confuses countries and citizens, and it strikes me, from a diplomatic point of view, as a counterproductive means to get people to see things our way. I suspect there aren't many citizens of Pyongyang reaching out to American travel agents to book a Haven suite on the Breakaway, but it's not beyond belief that well-educated, English-speaking citizens of Tehran would.

And anyone who has met such Iranians understands that not only might they be delightful sailing companions, but they might even express opinions that run contrary to their government's line.

In a sense, the confusion of governments and individuals can work the other way around. I know some Americans who routinely say they are Canadian as a way to distance themselves from unattractive American stereotypes, or simply avoid political conversations.

But I think this, too, is counterproductive. I have, with one notable exception, always identified my U.S. citizenship when asked. I don't doubt my behavior sometimes reinforces certain stereotypes, but I've also heard, "You're not a typical American." My reply is that I'm really not all that different from many of the people I know and work with.

(The notable exception to my full-disclosure rule: I was in Qatar and Oman when the Abu Ghraib scandal hit. Arab hospitality toward me was not breached, but I could see people strain to be polite once I told them I was American. In a bar on the outskirts of Muscat, I sat at a table surrounded by friendly, but inebriated, locals. "Where are you from?" one asked. "Canada," I replied.)

So, short of inviting someone to punch you in the mouth, I believe travelers should be counseled to tell hosts who they are and what they think.

I mentioned above that we might be able to influence public policy through our professional associations; U.S. Travel has been notably successful in showing our government the benefits of visa facilitation for countries with which we have normalized relations, and perhaps it and other industry groups can also point out that not every Iranian, Cuban, Syrian, Sudanese -- or even North Korean -- should be automatically classified as hostile. It's understandable if another layer of vetting is necessary before visas are issued, but these blanket travel bans are neither productive nor protective.

The summer of discontent, by the way, is unlikely to be only seasonal. At the last World Travel and Tourism Council Summit, in April, regional conflicts were identified by several speakers as the No. 1 threat to continued industry growth.

The desire to travel is an expression of our humanity; the conflicts that restrict it express the opposite. Blanket impositions of travel restrictions, I'd suggest, are not an effective means to curtail man's inhumanity to man.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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