State Department's new travel advisory method gets high marks

An interactive map color-codes the country by its ranking: red for 4, orange for 3 and yellow for 2.
An interactive map color-codes the country by its ranking: red for 4, orange for 3 and yellow for 2.

For the average person, and apparently for quite a few news organizations, the difference between the State Department's "travel warnings" and "travel alerts" was unclear.

For that reason, many in the travel industry welcomed and praised the department's overhaul of the country-specific travel advisory system.

"We shouldn't need to spend more time explaining the difference [between a travel alert and a travel warning] than we do explaining what the threat actually is," Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizen services, told reporters last week.

Under the new system, every country in the world has a travel advisory ranking from 1 ("exercise normal precautions") to 4 ("do not travel").

Popular destinations for U.S. travelers, such as Mexico, France and the U.K., register a 2 ("exercise increased caution"), while countries including Cuba, Turkey and Russia have been given level 3 ("reconsider travel").

Eleven countries are ranked level 4, including North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria.

An interactive map color-codes each country by its ranking: red for 4, orange for 3 and yellow for 2. Countries with a level 1 ranking -- such as Canada, Sweden and Mongolia -- are not color-coded.

Robert Kwortnik, associate professor of services marketing at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said the new format is easier to understand, meaning more travelers are likely to use it. He praised the use of the four-point rating system with clear labels and the color-coded map.

"These kinds of visual aids have proven effective in other contexts to make complex information easier to understand," Kwortnik said. "This new system should help travelers make better destination decisions because it is easier to understand at a glance. ... Travel decisions are complex, and people typically don't like the process of making complex decisions, so they're apt to ignore difficult-to-interpret information, and this can lead to bad decisions."

Kwortnik added that such information is especially important for novice or infrequent travelers who are going to rely more on sources like a government website but who are also less likely to understand the nuanced differences between a travel alert and a travel warning.

"Less knowledgeable travelers would be more apt to misinterpret these travel advisories, let alone use them at all," he said.

Travel agents also gave the new system positive reviews, though some said the site's functionality needed work.

Marc Casto, CEO of Casto Travel in San Jose, Calif., said, "We frequently have travelers who express security concerns, and this will be much easier for them to have their questions answered. Fundamentally, it is a significant improvement. The ability to display the information visually and on the mobile-friendly site will make it that much more navigable for many users."

However, Casto said, the functionality of the website could be improved, "notably the speed of response and the ability to search for information." He said it would be ideal if the information were overlaid with Google Maps or a similar already-deployed mobile solution.

"Regardless, this is a step in the right direction," Casto said.

ASTA, which was briefed by the State Department in advance of the changes, said it was too early to have gotten much member feedback on the new system, but overall it finds it to be a positive change.

"We did historically encounter some confusion on the differences between travel warnings and alerts and other aspects of the old system," said Eben Peck, executive vice president of advocacy for ASTA. "All in all, we view the new system as an improvement on the old."

Different details, same criteria

Actually, under the new system, the State Department's methods for determining country-specific threats has not been modified.

"How we assess the threat level in a country hasn't changed," said Bernier-Toth, adding that under the old system, the Department would have recommended that people not travel to a country that under the new system would be ranked as a level 4 country. "It's how we describe those conditions and set those levels that has changed."

Some parties think that the lack of details and specifics in assigning travel advisories is what should change.

"Destinations are painted with a broad brush as risky or not," Kwortnik said. "This means some travelers might drop entire countries from consideration based solely on the shorthand that the advisory system creates."

He did, however, say that this appears to be less problematic with the new system, because it enables deeper dives into each country's specific advisory.

"The new system uses the four-point advisory ratings for regions within countries to help travelers understand that certain areas within an otherwise risky country for travel are actually quite safe," he said.

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