Thursday, 5 July 2012

Interrogating Travel Advisories

The government’s opposition to the latest travel advisory issued against Kenya by the U.S. government is not absurd as some people think. Kenya’s protestation that travel advisories are sabotaging our economy by undermining the fragile yet crucial tourism industry is valid. Sure, it is common practise these days for developed countries to issue travel advisories but just how they go about issuing travel advisories is a matter that requires interrogation.

The troublesome fact about travel advisories is that they have the net effect of instituting an unintended 'trade embargo' and we all know the stigma associated with an embargo. Our tourism sector produces high quality products and services that are renowned worldwide and when a travel advisory is put in place, our foreign clients are scared into staying away or visiting alternative destinations despite the fact that we have spent enormous sums of money marketing our tourist products in the diaspora. Whereas they do not expressly ban trade, they do however discourage trade by scaring clients away.

Travel advisories are therefore a barrier to trade and at another level, they are part of the new protectionism. Security concerns are global; they are not unique to Kenya. Since the September 11, UK has had a credible terrorist attack plot about once a year and never once has the UK ever been slapped with a travel advisory, or has it? General Jonathan Evans, the director of MI5 UK’s spy agency, recently said that security officials bracing for an array of threats ahead of the summer Olympics. Although UK’s threat level is a notch below what it has been for much of the past decade, it is still at substantial. The level means an attack is a strong possibility but all the travel advisory-issuing countries have not put UK on the list.

This particular instance along with the many you know of, make it obvious to everyone that travel advisories are issued arbitrarily and selectively. Just like UK, the Kenyan government with its meagre resources is working hard to ward off terrorist attacks and assassination plots against foreigners. One can argue that the UK unlike Kenya is not an easy target but that does not negate the fact that there exists a strong possibility of attacks in both countries. It is not the ability to disrupt plots and to defend a country that matters; it is the fact that a credible threat exists that gets a country slapped with an advisory. Since a travel advisory has been issued against Kenya, then the same should be issued against the UK especially in the run up to the summer Olympics but that can never happen, or can it?

The selective and arbitrarily imposition of travel advisories is therefore discriminatory and it can be argued that it is being issued by the West in order to tame the tide of revenue inflows to third world countries. It can also be argued that the reason for issuing these advisories is twofold: the first is to stigmatize its subjects by tainting their image and destroying their self-esteem. Second, they are meant to perpetuate the West’s prejudice against third world countries so that at least in the long term, future generations of the West will continue to harbour the same anachronistic attitudes towards developing countries that previous generations have held. This selective and arbitrarily imposition of travel advisories is nothing but new protectionism even though it has the same old motivation.

Not only are the so-called advisories immoral and injurious, they are also absurd. The logic underpinning them is fundamentally flawed. Sure, it is now standard practise for Western countries to issue travel advisories as part of their responsibility to their citizens. But let us examine this standard-government-duty argument. Governments go have a legitimate duty to inform its public of conditions abroad that may affect their safety and security especially if they are to matter health and insurrections characterised by peculiar circumstances however when they touch on crime and terrorism to be precise that is a different matter altogether. Indeed, the interests (in the broadest definition of the term) of travel advisory-issuing countries (mostly Western ones) are harder to defend abroad and risk-assessments are inclined to be unsympathetic.

All the same, risk-assessments must be based on intelligence and as long as the targeted country has a healthy diplomatic relation and is fully cooperating in the elimination of the threat, then honestly, issuing a travel advisory like it has been done in Kenya’s case is simply wrong. Given how deeply offensive they are and the havoc they wreck on the economy, they certainly are a disincentive for future cooperation.

It should not be hard at this point to see that travel advisories are also immoral. Kenya is fighting a proxy war in Somalia. Sure, we are engaged in self-defence but we were not the ultimate targets for al-Shabaab; the U.S. and the West in general was. The al-Shabaab trouble has befallen us simply for being friends with the U.S. How then can the U.S. turn around and slap on us a travel advisory, how? Surely, isn’t that immoral of the U.S.? Aargh!

Interestingly though, travel advisories do not seem to prevent Americans and Westerns in general from travelling to Kenya something which also renders them irrelevant. The other sure purpose they serve besides tainting developed countries is fear mongering. I just find it is simply too easy to demonstrate that at best, travel advisories are not fit for purpose. The fact of the matter is travel advisories are absurd, offensive, injurious, and immoral and perhaps what the Kenyan media should do is ignore them in toto.

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