When armed conflict, natural disaster, political unrest, soaring crime or infectious diseases affect a country, foreign governments typically issue travel warnings, advising citizens to avoid travel to certain regions or even entire countries. However, as the recent nuclear incident in Japan has once again proven, such measures are also highly political.
A comparison of foreign ministry websites I looked at shows, for example, that even among members of the European Union or Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), travel warnings have differed greatly.
Why isn’t there consensus? The degree of political and economic ties with the country in question appears to be a core factor in risk assessment. After all, travel alerts can have serious financial consequences and may cause long-term damage to the standing of a country. As a result, the relationship between the issuer and recipient of a travel warning may suffer some collateral damage.
Indeed, most governments tend to take great offence when such alerts are issued against them. When swine flu was considered a particular threat in 2009, the United States and Mexico voiced their discontent with the warnings released by many European countries against travel to North America. Similarly, in 2010, Germany and France were affronted when countries such as the United States, Britain and Japan advised their citizens to avoid these two nations based on an increased risk of terrorist attacks.
And, of course, Japan has been at the receiving end of travel warnings following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many governments issued a countrywide alert for Japan. Foreign companies evacuated their employees and business and tourist travel came to a virtual standstill. Economic interests have been particularly critical of these travel advisories, fearing they could be substantially disadvantaged in international competition, especially as they already face delivery and capacity problems.
By the end of April, most embassies, international schools and foreign companies had reopened in Tokyo and despite some concerns over a lingering nuclear threat, governments surrendered to political and economic pressure to ease restrictions. Ironically, it’s the continued uncertainty over the nuclear situation that appears to have made it impossible to sustain such severe travel warnings.
Travel advice for Japan has now been limited to areas in the northeast of the country and near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Yet despitethe easing of travel restrictions, most governments have asked their citizens to exercise a high degree of caution, admitting that a further deterioration of the situation can’t be ruled out. As a result, foreign residents will likely need to consider appropriate precautionary measures, including for a swift departure from the country.
Still, as frustrating as the nuclear limbo is for firms and embassies, for politically and economically sensitive governments, this may actually be the best thing.