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Karen Christensen is a fierce advocate for safe and secure travel. As the deputy assistant secretary of overseas citizens services for the U.S. government’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, she recently attended ASTA’s global convention, which took place Sept. 25-28 in Reno-Tahoe, Nev., to spread the word about what the government can and cannot do for clients heading abroad.
What type of information does the Bureau of Consular Affairs provide to travelers?Our motto is, “an informed traveler is a safe traveler.” So, what we’re looking to do is to get information to travelers that will help them make an informed decision as they make their travel plans. We ask that travelers go to Travel.State.Gov., where we have country-specific information for every country in the world, a landing page with basic information about safety and security, information about getting into the country, the entry requirements, vaccinations that are required, etc.
There can sometimes be confusion about travel “alerts” and travel “warnings.” What are the key differences between the two? A travel alert is something that is temporary. We anticipate that, within 90 days, the situation will change. Maybe it’s a security threat that we think is going to be very short-term, and we’re going to look at it again and ask if we need to extend it or put out a travel warning. Or, it might be an infrastructure issue, such as in the case of the Nepal earthquake, where we were saying that it’s probably not a good time to travel there.
A travel warning will also address some of the same issues of safety and security. It might be referring to high levels of crime or high levels of terrorist threats, but a travel warning might also include advice to reconsider travel or advice to not travel to that country at all, or to not travel to particular areas in that country. We review the warnings at least every six months. We’re always reviewing our information and trying to make it as up to date as possible.
What is the process behind creating an alert or warning from a governmental perspective? What factors are considered?We’re looking at a variety of information. We’re looking at what’s happening in a country. We work very closely with our colleagues in other parts of the State Department who are experts on terrorism, threats and security, and we’re all working to evaluate the situation and determine whether an alert or warning would be appropriate.
How has the bureau altered its communication efforts so that travelers do not become unnecessarily worried?We’re trying to make our information shorter, more direct, clearer and easier for people to understand. Our travel warning for Mexico used to be 46 pages long. We’ve shortened that, and we’re really trying to shorten our products so that people will read them and pay attention to them.
For Mexico, for example, now we have an interactive map. If you hover over the map, state by state, information will pop up about travel restrictions and travel advice.
On some of our country-specific information, we’ve shortened them by 30 percent and have found that when we do that, people stay on the page for 50 percent longer.
How have world events in the past year influenced how the bureau conducts its business? Certainly we see what goes on in current events, and we’re involved any time there is one of those crises by communicating with the public in real time. We work with people who are looking for family members or who have family members who have been affected by the crisis. We continue to focus on how we are giving people information that they can use in assessing their travel plans. We want people to be aware of the risks so that they can make their individual decisions on which types of risks they’re willing to take. Every traveler is different, and the nature of the trip is different, and we just want them to have the most accurate information so they can be prepared.
How can travel agents best use the services from the Bureau of Consular Affairs? We put out individual security and emergency messages [in individual posts]. Those are much more in real time, a warning that this is happening now — such as a demonstration planned in a particular city. We also post [these] on Twitter and Facebook.
A travel agent should register for our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to get this information pushed out to them. If you’re enrolled in STEP, you can say, “I’m going to this place during this time frame,” and then any time that place sends a message, it will go to you. They should also share that information with clients as clients are making travel plans. Talk them through some of the risk factors and get an idea of where the clients stand on this information.
In which situations is the government unable to help? There are things we can do to help you help yourself. If you get arrested, for example, we will come and visit you and help you contact your family members, but we can’t get you out of jail.
Likewise, if you’re hospitalized, we can come and help you contact your family, but we can’t pay your hospital bill. We encourage travelers to get travel insurance that will cover medical emergencies, medical evacuations and that sort of thing. Most people don’t have enough to pay it upfront, and when you’re in the midst of a medical emergency, you don’t want to be trying to figure it out.