What Does the New State Department Risk-Rank System Mean to Travel Agents?

by Paul Ruden
What Does the New State Department Risk-Rank System Mean to Travel Agents?

Photo: Shutterstock.com


The new State Department system of risk-rankings has replaced the old system based on degrees of “warnings” and “advisories.” The details were well explained by Richard D’Ambrosio’s article in Travel Market Report on Jan. 11, 2018. The former scheme left much to be desired. An updated report in TMR on Jan. 17 in “New State Department Advisory Website Gains Travel Industry Favor” sets out some early indications of favorable response from the retail community, although the new approach has not been widely evaluated yet.

As a model of navigational simplicity, the State Department website still has some distance to travel. The home page includes a “Travel” link under the primary navigation heading of “Secretary Tillerson,” but that link is all about the Secretary’s travel. Scrolling further down you arrive, on the right, at a link to a familiar term, “Travel Advisories.” That link sends you to a page entitled “Travel Advisories,” where are found links to the new color-coded list of countries and the new “world at a glance” map which provides links to embassies, consulates and other government travel-related places of potential interest to a traveler. That same “Travel Advisories” page displays an alphabetical list of countries’ “travel advisories” which are color-coded and somewhat explanatory of the basis for the coding for that country.

Further down on the home page is another link to “Travel Information” that takes you to another intermediary page wherein lies the declaration that “Travel Advisories are live!” which, if followed properly, eventually leads you to the world map and other details.

To be clear, I am not criticizing the State Department’s effort to improve the communication of this difficult material. Website navigation is difficult and State has provided several paths to the same information, ultimately. The use of “travel advisories” is a hold-over from one element of the old regime, however. It might have been wise to change that term, especially since the site also continues to use “Alerts” with current information of potential interest to travelers, such as “specific safety and security concerns such as demonstrations, crime trends and weather events.”

In any case, the ultimate concern here is whether the changed system is going to help travel agents fulfill their duty to inform consumers of both the existence and extent or nature of the risks involved in traveling to foreign locations. Somewhat unfortunately, the color-coding scheme contains a potentially confusing distinction between Levels 2 (“Exercise Increased Caution”), 3 (“Reconsider Travel”) and 4 (“Do Not Travel”). The details are:

Level 2: “Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.”

Level 3: “Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.”

Level 4: “The highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or leave as soon as it is safe to do so.

I am uncertain how to distinguish between “avoid travel” and “don’t travel.” Agents will have to resort to the details in order to provide meaningful advice to clients. The details purport to provide “clear reasons for the level assigned, using established risk indicators and specific advice to U.S. citizens who choose to travel there.” The details are based on Crime, Terrorism, Civil Unrest, Health, Natural Disaster, Time-limited Event and Other.

Let’s see how this may work in practice, bearing in mind that only ten countries, most the site of active warfare or violent rebellion, are coded Red for Do Not Travel.

I chose Brazil, more or less at random, and found it coded Yellow for Level 2: Exercise increased caution. However, some areas of Brazil are coded Red: Do Not Travel. The Brazil problem overall and in those “Red” areas is Crime. Even Peru, which is Coded Blue for Exercise Normal Precautions, has areas that are Red, Level 4, Do Not Travel.

Without belaboring this further, several conclusions are unavoidable: (1) as the cliché says, the devil is in the details — a travel agent must dig below the color codes in advising clients about risks of travel, and failure to do so could have serious legal consequences; (2) the details of the advisories are likely to confuse some travelers, increasing the challenge for travel agents to explain what the State Department system is designed to achieve while not scaring the gazoots out of every client looking to travel to a foreign country; and (3) given the subtle distinctions between “avoid travel” and “do not travel,” it is probably wisest to just “stick to the facts” provided by the State Department’s system, combined, however, with anything else you may or should know, such as the breaking news about a problem in any country.

Just last week, for example, there was an unexpected announcement of military action in Jamaica. Travel agents must pay attention to the news in case something happens that does not make it into the State Department website or you have clients headed for or already in a country affected by sudden, unpredictable events. Agents cannot fairly be held accountable for knowing everything about every country in the world, but failure to pay attention to widespread news dramatically increases your exposure. With the claim of increased responsibility comes the burden of higher expectations.

No one likely wants to hear this, but one practical safeguard agents can use is to provide the client with the actual screenshots of the State Department information governing the target destination. If you choose that “going the extra mile to protect the agency” approach, just be prepared for and have a plan for how to respond to hard questions from the client. If you verbally countermand the thrust of the State Department advisories, you are asking for legal trouble if the activities in the advisory come to pass. There simply is no perfect solution to this conundrum.

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