As a travel writer, there are loads of perks that I love. Lots of travel mostly, but I also frequently get good food and great cultural exchange. Of course, there is a downside. The real downside is no one is going to become a millionaire as a travel writer. The imaginary downside is that something terrible is going to happen while I am out of the country. Something statistically microscopic like crashing planes, stranded in a foreign country, or being kidnapped by banditos. The truth of the matter is that I am far more at risk at home than on vacation, but these musings still flutter in my head.
So, I was not surprised when I had a fluttering or two about a scheduled trip to this year's ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Tourism Forum held in the Philippines. I tried to pay these fears little mind as I filled out a state department form on the internet to let the government know where I was going "“ a precaution I take when traveling anywhere. No sooner had I pressed enter on the keyboard when a giant warning appeared on my computer screen. The travel advisory was dated 3/23/05 and looked pretty scary. Danger, don't go to the Philippines, it said. The Philippines was part of a group of countries listed with warnings urging travelers to stay home. This seemed odd to me. The next morning I tried to contact the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines searching for answers "“ after all, the advisory was now over a year old. Was it still unsafe? How unsafe? Not surprisingly, I never received a response from Uncle Sam.
I arrived fearful. I waited for what I imagined were kidnappers at every corner. However, I found loads of security folks everywhere in the Philippines. As it turned out, the ATF was a major event. Then, I felt safe "“ too safe. All the military presence was a bit disconcerting. What made matters worse was the moment I realized I was a visiting white American journalist attending a high-profile event. I, in my mind, must be a target, right? My dreadful Caucasian-ness stuck out like a sore thumb. Evil-doers must have been watching me. I put on some dark Hollywood sunglasses and a Los Angeles Dodgers' baseball cap and tried to keep a low-profile while participating in some of the fun events held around Mindinao.
However, after a day or two of worry, I realized I was not going to be a target after repeatedly getting stopped in the street by locals intent on congratulating me for my part in a recent victory in Team USA's championship tug-of-war team at an innocuous ATF event on the island of Samal. My teeth-clenching, body straining photo would eventually appear in at least four newspapers that featured my name, profession, and nationality. One photo appeared on the front page of the Mindanao Mirror "“ the U.S. defeating the Philippine team "“ so much for low-profile. The banditos now knew I was in town and prime for kidnapping.
In spite of my new-found celebrity target status, I stopped worrying about the American-hating bogeymen and started enjoying the unique and enthusiastic culture of the Philippines. There was nothing else to do unless I felt worrying was going to help. I was not alone; 3,000 other international delegates who attended the event also enjoyed themselves. They did so by walking the streets, taking public transportation, and eating tons spicy foods in local restaurants.
For those unaware, the U.S. State Department has a list that it maintains to remind/assist travels of potentially dangerous places that, in the opinion of the U.S. government, are dangerous to visit. I believe it is a good idea to give travelers information they can use before deciding where to spend their holidays. However, going down the list of these "problem" countries, there are some discrepancies. Sure there are some obvious places to avoid "“ including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan "“ countries that have clear negative tourism value for Americans. However, even with the most negative of situations, countries in the middle of war, there are still thousands of foreign workers, including Americans, going about their daily lives in these countries. Recently, one U.S. teenager bought a plane ticket to Iraq and landed with nothing but a phrase book and returned home in one piece. I am not suggesting that anyone pack their bags for the toasty resorts of Iraq or any other war-torn nations, but it is important to understand that the U.S. wrongly places the Philippines in the same category as Iraq. The U.S. is not at war with the Philippines. In fact, the Philippines have remained a strong, supportive U.S. ally.
Another important and compelling reason that I further scrutinized the travel advisory to the Philippines was by again reviewing the State Department list itself. Spain and England have both terrorist strikes that have seen more casualties. South Africa is frequently regarded as having the highest murder rate in the world. France has had its riots. And the United Stated has more convicted criminals than anywhere else in the world. None of these countries currently carry a State Department travel warning. It is also important to acknowledge there are no travel advisories for Las Vegas' visitors risking the loss of their life savings or visitors to Los Angeles who will face traffic jams and boob jobs.
So what is all the fuss about in the Philippines? There must be a reason. Here is what the official advisory states:
The Department urges Americans who choose to travel to the Philippines to observe vigilant personal security precautions; to remain aware of the continued potential for terrorist attacks against Americans, U.S. or other Western interests in the Philippines, and to register with the U.S. Embassy. The Department warns against all but essential travel throughout the country in light of a heightened threat to Westerners. (http://travel.state.gov)
True, the Philippines has had several isolated incidents of terrorism. It is tragic and I hope that it never happens again. These acts are described by the State Department as, "…including several deaths." This quote really grabbed my attention. It does not claim these bombs were directed at Americans. Nor does it state that the victims were Americans. Moreover, "several deaths," based on crime, to someone living in Los Angeles (namely me) is hardly worth the trouble. Bad things happen everywhere and travelers should always use caution at home or abroad. However, it is irresponsible to suggest the Philippines as a particularly unsafe destination, especially because it is not. In my recent interview with the Philippine's Minister of Tourism, Joseph "Ace" Durano, commented, "We invite the opinion makers to come to our country to see it for themselves. It is largely an over exaggeration of the situation."
I experienced a powerful security presence in the Philippines, one that was far more stringent than the one I experience in the U.S. Furthermore, most experts agree the main threat in the Philippines comes from one organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a secessionist group who wants to have its own country apart from the Philippines. They are Filipinos fighting Filipinos primarily in the distant mountains in an area called Sulu. While their means of argument are appalling, MILF frustrations are not aimed toward Americans; they are directed toward the Philippine Government. In a similar example, Pakistan (another U.S. ally) has just received another updated travel advisory, dated 1/27/06 describing the U.S. concerns as thus, "Due to on-going concerns about the possibility of terrorist activity…" There are no specifics listed in this advisory as evidence only the prospect of an unnamed concern. So how should travelers view advisories like these? Global futurist, Rohit Talwar, tries to answer this question during our recent interview in Davao City.
The problem is that those travel advisories are not completely independent. We don’t know what’s been written behind them, the political issues. And they’re not written by people who live on the ground and in the place. It would be very important to create travel advisories that were consistent written by people who know and that [the advisories] are constantly updated.
From my own perspective, I came to a possible realization while going through customs leaving Manila, in which, I would pass through four checkpoints, two x-ray machines, several pat-downs and one baggage search in half the time it took standing in a similar security line at L.A.X. airport for a single screening.
So where does this travel advisory come from? One thing I noticed was that many of the countries on the travel advisory warning list all have something in common. They are small countries. They are considered third-world. They do not possess the public relations strength to disagree with larger opinionated nations, and their isolated acts of terrorism are just like our own, but are sometimes the only reason these countries appear in our news. To me, it is clear that not all countries that have received terrorist attacks or have dangerous political climates find their way onto travel advisories. Furthermore, the Philippines have an active and present security force taking frequent measures to ensure safety. Troubled regions in the Philippines are not necessarily targeting Americans. The overwhelming majority of travel warning recipients are third-world nations: a label which in of itself is not enough of a reason to avoid visiting. On a personal note, I found Davao clean, friendly, and most of all safe, statistically one of the safest places in Southeast Asia. Ultimately, the State Department warnings are a good place to start investigating an exotic vacation, but maybe does not have to be the only deciding factor.
“ATF Formally Opens.” Front page photo. The Mindanao Daily Mirror 18 Jan. 2006, sec. 1: 1+
Durano, Joseph Ace. Personal Interview. 19 Jan. 2006
Pakistan Travel Advisory. U.S. Department of State. 27, Jan. 2006
Philippine Travel Advisory. U.S. Department of State. 23, Mar. 2005
Talwar, Rohit. Personal interview. 17 Jan. 2006.
Written and photographed by Devin Galaudet