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Vague travel alerts provide little direction for travelers

With a daughter currently traveling in the Middle East, Stephen Silver could spend his time stressing out about the U.S. government’s latest alert regarding potential “terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond.”

Instead, the casino manager from Sewell, N.J., is taking a view that will resonate with millions of travelers who are also trying to determine what the alert means for them.

“You can’t protect against everything,” said Silver. “You travel and you watch the alerts.”

Other travelers appear to be taking a similar approach. No travel companies have announced operational changes and travel agents report that no clients have canceled their plans. And while the government has urged American citizens to leave Yemen, U.S. officials have not suggested that anyone change their plans for other destinations.

Americans should exercise "some common sense and some caution," President Barack Obama told "The Tonight Show" host Jay Leno on Tuesday. He encouraged people to check with the State Department or embassies before trips to any potentially dangerous areas.

Nevertheless, the non-specific nature of the original alert has some observers questioning its release in the first place.

"People pay less attention to a vague alert than to a very targeted one,” said travel agent Linda Benedon of Boca Raton, Fla. “If you were to say, don’t go to this particular place, they’ll notice. But don’t travel anywhere in the world? That’s just a little too nebulous.”

This week, the situation became slightly clearer after U.S. government personnel were ordered to evacuate Yemen and the State Department urged all Americans in the country to leave “immediately” because of an “extremely high” threat of a terrorist attack. On Monday, government officials released information on the Internet chatter that prompted the initial alert, which had led to the closure of nearly 20 embassies in North Africa and the Middle East.

Nearly a dozen embassies in the region are expected to remain closed for up to a week.

In the meantime, the underlying issue of whether such non-specific alerts do more harm than good remains. Canceling elaborate and often expensive travel plans based on such vague information simply isn’t an option for most people. At the same time, every alert that isn’t followed by an actual incident gives people one more reason to ignore them.

“It’s like calling ‘Fire!” 15 times,” said consultant Peter Tarlow, president of Tourism and More Inc., in College Station, Texas. “As more people ignore it, the value of the warning decreases rapidly.”

Consider, for example, the color-coded alert system the Department of Homeland Security implemented in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Although it spanned five colors, ranging from green (low) to red (severe), it remained at orange (high) from August 2006 until the system was discontinued in April 2011.

“People just stopped listening,” said Tarlow.

At the same time, Tarlow cautions that heeding such warnings also carries a risk. The individual traveler who stays home may be safer but forgoing international travel, he says, actually plays into the hands of those who seek to instill that fear in the first place.

“People don’t travel to see the same mall they can see in their hometown; they travel to learn about different cultures and to try different foods,” he said. “Tourism represents the fight against xenophobia.”

The issue takes on even greater significance for business travelers, especially for those whose corporate travel policies are tied to government warnings.

“We follow State Department advisories pretty conservatively,” said Adam Hils, a research director for Gartner who is traveling to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in September. “Our main assets are our people and we don’t want to compromise their personal safety.”

The issue is two-fold, he said. In the short term, U.S. travelers currently in the Middle East won’t have access to the resources of their government as long as embassies remain closed. Longer term, the alert, which is in effect until Aug. 31, could put a chill on future travel plans. 

“People may be slower to book — and probably further out — until they see how things shake out," he said.

And grounded business travelers and their employers wouldn't be the only ones to suffer, says Tarlow.

"The Middle East may not get as many visitors as Paris or Rome or Washington, D.C., but think of all the business that's conducted in the Middle East," he said. "If we stop doing international business, how much do we hurt ourselves?" 

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.