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Advice on travel advisories

Is it safe to travel to the toilet? And the truth about Gulf tours.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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YOU will be excused for thinking 2002 was the Year of the Horse. It was not. It was the Year of the Travel Advisory. For those who are unaware of these nifty notices, Travel Advisories are issued by the US State Department. Unlike any good travel agency whose advisories contain useful information on room rates, breakfast, and whether children under 12 can stay free, these State Department advisories miss out on crucial detail and even American breakfasts are omitted. This is a great pity. American breakfasts are what great holidays are made off. They include eggs and are far more wholesome (and filling) than namby-pamby wheat-and-cereal Continental naff that hotels like to offer.

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The State Department is not happy with the travel profile of Americans. It wants them to travel to the Gulf, which is a lot warmer than New York, and sunny, despite the occasional forecast of mushroom clouds. To facilitate this enterprise it is organising cruises, in uniform, where tour groups follow flag-waving leaders into the desert but not in airconditioned coaches. They travel in Humvees which are great for "wadi bashing" (dune drives) and, perhaps, a spot of "Iraqi bashing" if the itinerary permits or one of the weapon's inspectors finally finds that stash of Coleman's English mustard the Iraqi army loves so much. Apparently over there they serve it with Scuds instead of steak as no one can read the label. This of course has peeved the French who abhor English mustard and have pulled out of the Gulf tour.

Travel advisories have been issued for so many countries, Americans must ask if it is safe to venture to the toilet

By the end of 2002, Travel Warnings by the State Department were issued against (to name a few) Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Jordan, Venezuela, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Indonesia, Libya, Somalia, Angola, Pakistan, Nigeria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Iran, Algeria. In addition Public Announcements (short-term threats) were issued for the Philippines (expires 7/1/03), East Africa, Kenya, Turkmenistan, Solomon Islands, Argentina, East Timor, Nepal (expires 5/20/03), Malaysia (expires 5/14/03), India (expires 3/20/03). Believing that to be insufficient (as Americans could still travel to the toilet), the State Department issued a Worldwide Caution in November 2002 that runs until 20 May, 2003. That's pretty comprehensive. "Where are you going, sir?" Oh, somewhere, anywhere… "Sorry. Next!"

It is reassuring to see someone is taking a stand against crime. After all, till the mid-Nineties there were an annual 2,000 homicides (2,420 in 1993) and almost 200,000 violent crimes. That, surely, is a traveller's nightmare. It is clear Americans should stop travelling. Not to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or New Delhi, where the worst that might happen is a satay overdose, but to New York, the city that provided these inspiring figures. It is heartening to learn that by 2000, the Big Apple had things under control with just 952 murders, 124,890 violent crimes, 3,530 rapes and 40,539 robberies. What a relief, especially for women.

The North Koreans would like to organise a few packages too and send groups in uniform south with green glowing things

In that year, the number of violent crimes in Hongkong was at about the 9,000 mark with homicides averaging 79 a year (or one murder per 100,000 people, compared with five for Paris and around 13.5 for New York in its heyday). London has a homicide almost every day. I assume figures for New Delhi were looking up as well by 2000 as I had finished beating up my kid brother by around 1970.

The murder rate in USA is now three times above the international average, four times higher than Japan's and nine times higher than China's. It is a measure of the developing world's immaturity that no advisories have been issued by India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines against the US. New York is considered perfectly kosher for Balinese, even if they blithely wander past 125th Street. The thing is, these US-style package holidays are catching on. The North Koreans would like to organise a few travel packages of their own and send groups (also in uniform) to the south bearing green glowing things. Saddam Hussein improvised an itinerary some ten years ago but was overwhelmed by American tourists. That's the power of travel. Let's not misuse it, in uniform or mufti.

There is something that travellers have used since the world began, well before the State Department, before travel advisories and vaccinations, before consular circulars and stop signs. It is called commonsense. Travel is the essence of life, history, commerce and civilization. Go on, pack your bags. That goes for everyone except New Yorkers who should barricade themselves at home, especially if those Balinise are performing a kecak dance in Harlem. "I wus gonna mug them man and these people started shouting chukka-chukka-chukka. Pretty scary stuff…" This probably explains why United Airlines has gone bust. Eight in every potential 100,000 business travellers never make it to the airport. They are either mugged, murdered or have bought tickets for the Balinese kecak dances up in Harlem which, as we know, can go on forever.

Yes terrorism is a real threat. But French mustard is far worse. Just use your loaf. Now welcome the Year of the Goat, and New Yorkers bid farewell to the Year of the Hearse. Happy New Year.

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