Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Do you want to know now... or later? Travel warnings for Guatemala

Further proof that it doesn't hurt to compare government travel advice: Guatemala travel warnings.

The story:

On March 14, four Belgian tourists and two others were kidnapped in Livingstone in the Izabal Department. The attack is part of the ongoing dispute between local indigenous people and Guatemalan authorities. Previously, nearly 30 police officers were kidnapped.

How it plays out in the advice:

March 14 - Media reports pick up the story fairly quickly. Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade issues a travel warning that day advising its citizens against "non-essential travel to the Izabal Department, especially in the tourist town of Livingston and in the area of Rio Dulce." The warning also notes that authorities were planning to evacuate all tourists from the area.

March 19 - The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issues a Warden Message stating that it is "
advising its employees to avoid travel to the Livingston area until further notice. American citizens who decide to travel to the area are encouraged to check with ASISTUR at 2421-2800 extensions 1301, 1305 and 1306, or the U.S. Embassy at 2326-4405, for the latest information before traveling." (**Note that embassy personnel are advised to avoid travel, but US citizens aren't explicitly banned).

March 19 - The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office issues the following warning: "We advise against all but essential travel to the tourist destinations of Rio Dulce and Livingstone in Izabal Department following the kidnapping, and subsequent release, of four foreign tourists on 14 March 2008... The situation is now under control but local tensions remain and there remains a possibility of further unpredictable acts. If you intend to visit this region you should remain vigilant, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor the local media for developments. "

As of the time I am writing this (March 19), the New Zealand and Australia governments have not issued new advice.

As you can see,
the advice is quite different depending on the source. Unlike the Tibet warnings, the timing is different as well. The Canadian government's advice was the quickest to be released, and identifies an immediate concern (the evacuation of tourists from the area). The US and UK perhaps waited until after the crisis had passed perhaps in order to review and assess the situation before issuing advice. Or maybe they directly contacted citizens who were there (at least those who had registered) and then posted advice for the public later.

Confusing? You bet. After all, there's more than four day's difference between the warnings.

Is this case part of a pattern? No. No single government can claim the title of always being first when it comes to releasing information, or having the "best" information, or making the most updates for any given situation. How each one responds and reacts depends on a myriad of factors we can really only guess at.

Bottom line: Compare, compare, compare. Once you know about a situation, your best bet is still to monitor local news and follow the advice of local authorities.

That, at least, is one thing all government travel advice seems to agree on!

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