Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Don't listen to the US State Department.....

.....because they're not always right.

So a few weeks ago, I was scouring the US State department's web page for travel advisories. I come across this and I have to laugh:

April 30, 2008

This Travel Alert updates U.S. citizens about security issues in China and advises American citizens traveling or residing there to be alert to their surroundings and exercise caution at all times. This Travel Alert expires on October 31, 2008.

Any large-scale public event such as the upcoming Olympic Games may present an attractive target for terrorists. There is a heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within China in the near future. In light of these security concerns, U.S. citizens traveling in China are advised to use caution and to be alert to their surroundings at all times, including at hotels, in restaurants, on public transportation and where there are demonstrations and other large-scale public gatherings. Consistent with our standard advice, American citizens are urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations.

In May I was in Hong Kong, right when the olympic flame was being run through the area. May 1st and 2nd, to be exact. May 1st is a holiday in Hong Kong. Now that I think of it, the hotel I stayed at was where they kept the flame, unbeknownst to most of us. But we figured it probably was there because it was the 8th floor and there were about 5 or 6 guards hanging around the lobby near the elevators constantly, all with ear pieces and wearing signal jamming devices. I could not place a cell phone call out of there for hours. At first I thought these guys were on every floor because we knew the flame was coming through, but then we checked on the 10th and the 7th floors and it was really only the 8th floor. Yeah Asians and the number 8. In my bad Chinese, I translate 8 8 8, as basically get "f**king rich".

The night of May 1st, we were forced to move to another hotel, simply because "there weren't any more rooms." Ahhh... yeah. Somehow I don't believe that the New World Hotel in Hong Kong could possibly run out of rooms on just that particular day; there are more than 800 rooms in this hotel. It was likely that they didn't want anyone on the floor when the flame was there. We give hell to the staff at the check in desk and get nothing out of them. The look at us blankly and we know they are lying. But we can do nothing. So we move next door to the Intercontinental - ridiculously expensive but the only place that "apparently" had room.

I digress. Back to the point - basically on the morning of the 2nd when the olympic flame was run through the Kowloon peninsula and through the island of Hong Kong, the atmosphere was certainly far removed from that of San Francisco or Paris. Security was tight and well run.

If anything, it was massively crowded. So crowded you could feel the breath of the person standing next to you. And definitely a tremendous amount of pride and energy in the crowd. As far as I could see there weren't' any demonstrations. There were a LOT of happy people. There was plenty of security, and the subway was shutdown, in every mall and hotel that connected itself to it. The peninsula has an overbuilt maze of malls and hotels with subways integrated into many slots. It's so twisted and confusing, it's super easy to get lost. And lost I did get, many many times. Everything looks the same, the same bling bling over and over again. Heavy air conditioning inside, tropically warm outside. Going inside and out repeatedly gave me a massive headache.

Early on the 2nd, I was reading two newspapers at breakfast. One was the South China Morning Post and the other, the Asian Wall Street Journal. The WSJ didn't make much of an event for the torch. Impartial, factual, mostly about world politics and the economy. The cover of the South China reported on the crowds and the national pride. The inside section had a complete page about detaining Mia Farrow at the airport. She was given a stern warning not to try anything crazy but not held or penalized in any other way. She was quoted as saying that she was here to peacefully attending a human rights meeting within Hong Kong. I guess if you're an "american traveler", you're more at risk in San Francisco - where the demonstrations were rampant or in Paris. The funny part is that I was on my way back into San Francisco via San Diego the day the flame was run through SF. And I was detained at airport security for a good half hour. Um.

If you look at the British travel advisory site, there is no warning. So it seems that this US warning was really politically motivated. Mind you, up until 1997 Hong Kong, now Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region) was British territory. They seem to know their stuff. But of course, I am biased because a) I'm asian and can hang back while the white americans get hassled at the market b) I don't get mistaken as an american unless I open my stupid non-cantonese speaking mouth c) I've been to Hong Kong too many times to know better.

In fact, this article from an old Conde Nast rag lying around - shows clearly different views between the US and Britsh. It is not my imagination at work. (see picture)

On the left in mostly Red is the US State Dept warning to "Avoid ALL Travel to the country" On the right in mostly orange is the British Foreign & Commonwealth office, instructing travelers to avoid all travel to *certain parts* of the country.

October 2006 Conde Nast Traveler: Stop Press : Reality Check

Direct your browser to the U.S. state Department's web site in search of advice on venturing abroad and what you'll find there may persuade you to stay home. At press time, Travel Warnings are in effect for 30 countries, many of which (Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan) one might not be inclined to visit anyway. But a maddeningly comprehensive Public Announcement entitled "Worldwide Caution" seems to have been composed to put Americans off travel in general, warning of "the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against Americans…overseas." The text cites the danger zones as including but not limited to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and reports that extremists may subject Americans to assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings on public transportation, at sporting events, and in offices, clubs, restaurants, hotels, and places of worship. The media's tendency to grant prominent coverage to incidents of violence overseas, most notably those involving Americans, enhances the impression that, post–9/11, the world beyond our borders is perilous and hostile.............

Which sources should travelers trust? Travel agents who specialize in the Middle East and Southeast Asia note that Americans are rarely warned against visiting countries considered allies, and unruly states are rarely removed from the don't-go list. "We strive not to make warnings political," says a U.S. State Department spokesperson. "We just want to get the best information to Americans."

Ah... um.

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