rom the U.S. Dept. of State, May 21, 2004: Due to ongoing security concerns, the Department urges Americans to consider carefully the risks of travel to Kenya at this time. ... The U.S. Government continues to receive indications of terrorist threats in the region. ... "

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge on the "Today" show, May 26, 2004: "There is a continuing stream of intelligence that talks about the possibility of attacks [on the U.S.]. ... There is reason to be concerned. ... We operate under the notion that there are terror cells here."

I should note that Ridge's quotes above are taken out of context -- or at least, the context he was trying to create. He wanted to convey that there's always a threat of terrorism, that the government is vigilant and there are continuous improvements in security. When asked why the government wasn't elevating the threat level, Ridge said there's "no need to put the entire country on national alert."

Ridge knows there are consequences to officially sounding an alarm. If the alarm is too shrill, people become more wary than circumstances demand. And if warnings are prolonged, people become complacent.

Warnings about travel to Kenya may offer a case study for both undesirable outcomes.

In 2002, a bomb went off outside a hotel in Mombasa, and a missile was fired at an Israeli airplane. The State Dept. initially reacted with only a "public announcement," a format used to "disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats." Six months later, in May 2003, the State Dept. replaced the public announcement with a sterner "warning" against nonessential travel to Kenya.

This month, that language was lightened, as quoted at the beginning of this article. Interestingly, the actual bombing -- which, remember, occurred six months prior to the issuance of the first State Dept. warning -- had not slowed Kenya's post-9/11 recovery. In fact, tourism arrivals in 2003 after the bombing but before the warning grew 22% over 2002. After the warning, however, arrivals for the balance of the year fell 42% below 2002 levels.

However, Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, said Kenya is having "a banner year" in 2004, and that the bookings started coming well before the warning language changed.

Did Americans decide on their own that it was safe? Or have they simply become complacent, concluding that when many places present a risk, why worry about a specific warning?

There may be no difference in the terrorist threat in New York and Nairobi, for example -- Ridge's language certainly doesn't define a difference. And that may be why some tourist boards charge that warnings are unevenly applied to Western countries vs. developing nations.

Why, for instance, does Kenya have a warning and Spain only a public announcement? Maisa Fernandez of the Kenya Tourist Board, said that U.S. officials told her only that "there are bad people living in Kenya," a charge Ridge admits is true of the U.S., as well.

In an era when U.S. officials are accused of not doing everything possible to prevent terrorism, they understandably want a paper trail of warnings. But this is also an era when the U.S. should not issue warnings that may cripple the tourism industry of a potential ally, particularly when the U.S. shows it's too queasy to issue such a warning about itself when it's under similar conditions.


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