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Are Travelers Safe In The Middle East?

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It's time to try to provide a little perspective to the tragic events of September 11 in Benghazi, Libya, as well as the ongoing protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

On July 2, 2012 the trailer for the film "Innocence of Muslims" was released on YouTube. The reaction to the film, which received hardly any publicity or promotion, was less than zero. And then, without warning, groups of protestors claiming outrage over the depiction of Muhammad in the film launched orchestrated attacks on both the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The attacks in Libya were far more orchestrated and sophisticated, and "protestors" arrived with RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).

This wasn't a march. This was a full-out attack. When the smoke cleared, four Americans were dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and an untold number of Libyans, many of whom were trying to defend the consulate.

Almost immediately, and not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of State warned U.S. citizens against all travel to Libya. In addition, the State Department ordered the departure of all non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Libya. This travel warning actually superseded another travel warning dated August 27, 2012.

The United Kingdom and Canada also issued similar travel warnings to their citizens. The reality: Few American tourists/travelers have been traveling to Libya. And until just yesterday, the number of American travelers to Egypt had been slowly creeping back, with no reports of any incidents. But the number of U.S. visitors to Egypt is still nowhere near the levels of 2010.

So, in both the near and long term, what do these attacks mean for U.S. travelers to the region? If history is any indication, travel will almost certainly flatline. Americans are concerned about being targeted abroad. Totally understandable.

But history -- and especially my experience -- dictates that smart travelers can easily and without fear travel to the region. For a number of compelling economic and political reasons.

For example, what is one of the strongest financial/political imperatives of the new Morsi administration in Egypt? Not surprisingly, travel and tourism.

Travel is Egypt's most important source of foreign exchange. It provides jobs, puts food on the table for millions of Egyptian citizens. It is, for lack of a better description, the "third rail" of the Egyptian economy. Leaders cannot touch it because the economic impact of diminishing or eliminating tourism would directly contribute to the collapse of any government not making travel/tourism an economic priority.

This is exactly what the new Morsi regime has been attempting to do. But the graphic images of protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo -- with a few hundred protestors and police battling it out live on television -- sends a powerful negative image to anyone contemplating a trip to Egypt.

The reality: Americans sailing down the Nile in Luxor at this very moment are having a great time. Those visiting Aswan report no incidents. And those vacationing in Alexandria are there, making new friends.

This is a time to practice common sense, and to then proceed accordingly. It is not a time to succumb to our fears. The number of "protesters" who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi did not do so with the blessing or support of the new Libyan government. The protestors currently battling with police at the U.S. embassy in Cairo is less than 300 people...

It is in the immediate best political and financial interest of both the Libyan and Egyptian governments to bring the killers to justice and to secure and protect all U.S. embassy buildings.

Officially the U.S. state department strongly recommends for those still wanting to travel to Egypt:

  • First Check the travel.state.gov website for any warnings and alerts

  • Check the embassy website for your particular destination for further information

  • Register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program
  • I strongly recommend that you don't make an arbitrary decision not to travel based solely on fear. Instead, take some time to review the facts, and the real numbers...Indeed, this is a time for prayer, hope and justice and to keep presidential politics out of this.

    And at the same time, this is a time for a humane and pragmatic approach to what I still consider not only one of our basic rights -- to travel. And it is a time -- without sounding naive or weak -- to never forget that travel remains the most effective and powerful tool to break down barriers and build bridges. The people-to-people exchanges that happen every time we travel. Ironically, it is what Christopher Stevens was working to preserve and to build.

    Let us not forget an email that Christopher Stevens sent to his family and friends earlier this summer:

    "The whole atmosphere has changed for the better," Stevens wrote, according to the International Herald Tribune. "People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French, and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let's hope it lasts!"

    My message is that it can last, and will last if we don't embrace a bunker mentality or practice acts of indiscriminate retaliation. My continuing hope is that when the going get tough, the tough get smarter.