It’s has been a tough month for Tourism and October appears to be ending like it started. In addition to all of the strikes across Europe, particularly those in France and Italy, terrorism has once again reared its ugly head in Europe and the Mideast.
A suicide bomber attacked Taksim Square in Istanbul, wounding 32 people. Taksim Square, Istanbul’s main square, is located close to several upscale hotels. The square is a noted meeting place and is often frequented by tourists because it is a major transportation hub. Taksim Square is located across the Galata Bridge and away from the main tourism area of the city. No organization has claimed responsibility, although it is thought that the Kurdish separatist militants are behind the incident. Authorities in Istanbul are vigilant about tourism and it is to be noted that fifteen of the wounded were police, as the terrorist appears to have focused the attack on the police stationed around the square.
Repercussions from the explosive packages shipped from Yemen to the United States seem bound to cause an investigation on security checks for air-freight packages that are shipped around the world. It has been rumored that one of the packages involved in the recent controversy was shipped on a passenger plane and that the sophisticated devices were designed to bring down aircraft.
Overall, we think establishing best practices on safety for parcel and package shipping is a good idea, but if freight is banned from passenger flights, the expense of our tickets will surely go up.
In Northern Ireland police disarmed two bombs, one near Belfast Airport, in a sign that Northern Ireland may be slipping back in to the “troubles”. Due to the presence of another bomb that required defusing, the railway connecting Belfast and Dublin was closed for 24 hours.
In the only piece of good news for travelers over the weekend, was the speculation that the days of the ETA Basque Separatist Movement in Spain may be drawing to a close, although we have heard these rumors several times in the past. See Yahoo News for more information.
As those of you who have read our travel advice at ThereArePlaces know, we advise that travelers keep a low profile when traveling and avoid large crowds when possible. We continue to regard travel as the best prescription the doctor can order!
We expect that you have noticed that the strikes in France, mentioned in our last few blogs, have intensified and do not appear to be letting up. Indeed, a BBC reporter has indicated that he sensed a change in the atmosphere of the strikes and felt that it is possible the demonstrations will turn “angry”. See this report by the BBC for more details.
To show you how bad things are in France, recently a Celebrity Cruise ship on day one of 12-night Mediterranean Cruise was found to have a damaged rudder when docked at Nice, France. The cruise was canceled, but rail services is now so unpredictable in France that the passengers were offered only a 10 hour bus ride to Barcelona, rather than a seat on a high-speed TGV to Paris for a return home.
Our recommendation is that you cancel immediate plans for travel to France. Wait until the strikes and petrol shortage are resolved and, only then, consider returning to the country. We understand the emotions of the strikers and the establishment, but note that the situation is a great loss for tourists and those who depend on them for income, as this is a particularly delightful and popular time of the year to explore the wonders of France.
Well, it appears that Europe is ablaze with strikes. On Monday there will be a train strike in Belgium that will impact the country and rail services to Belgium from other countries. See this article for more information. In addition, the BBC has a good description of the problem for the Eurostar from London to Brussels.
Well, the French strikers continue to hold their position and the government continues not to budge.
The strikes in Paris and around the country will extend into next week with a major strike planned for October 19, the eve of the French Senate vote on the retirement age bill. See this article from Bloomberg for more details.
One of the related aspects of the strikes and unrest in France over the pension issue is that the country’s petrol refineries have been blockaded by strikers, as have the ports that receive oil from abroad. In short, the country is in danger of running out of fuel over the next ten days, if there is not some change in the situation.
Today, the fuel supply to de Gaulle and Orly airports, which serve Paris, were shut off as the company that operates the pipelines to these airports reported that they had no supplies of fuel. See the BBC for a detailed report on the fuel shortage throughout the country.
If you are planning on traveling in France over the next week, we recommend that you consider changing your plans. It is unlikely that you will find fuel for your car and even if you plan to rely on public transportation, you will likely find cutbacks and abbreviated schedules.
In short, this is not the week to travel France, unless you are planning on walking, bicycling or riding a horse! Even so, the impact of a sustained fuel shortage could have a serious consequences for the the integrity of the infrastructure of France, including the availability of food and basic services.
The strike season appears to be turning into a year around phenomenon in France, as a major strike has been called for Tuesday that is expected to grind transportation to a halt countrywide (including air, rail and Metro (in Paris)). Further, the strikers will demonstrate again on Saturday. Another aspect of this strike is that it is an “open strike”, which means that the strike could be renewed daily by a vote of the workers supporting the effort.
Most flights into Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports will be canceled, so if you have plans to fly to, from or within France, you should contact your airlines to see what is possible.
This week’s strike in France is a specific response to the Upper House of the French system of government voting to change the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age for a full pension from 65 to 67. Read more details about the strike and the issues behind it at Yahoo news.
If you will be traveling in France tomorrow, avoid gatherings associated with the strike. It is expected that the strike will be large (as all unions seem to be supporting it) and disrupt the normal flow of daily life throughout the country.
The State Department of the United States has issued a travel alert for US citizens who may be planning travel to Europe, those already traveling in Europe and those who may be living or studying in Europe. The crux of the matter is that a recently captured terrorist has apparently revealed that Al Qa’ida operatives are in the planning stages for launching terrorist attacks in Europe similar to the one that happened in Mumbai, India in 2008. While the cell in question has been penetrated and appears to be in disarray, it is thought that others may be planning similar operations in Europe and elsewhere.
By the way, in the jargon of the State Department, travel alerts are defined as follows. “Travel Alerts are issued to disseminate information about short-term conditions that pose significant risks to U.S. Citizens. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups, anniversaries of terrorist events, election-related demonstrations or violence, and high-profile events such as international conferences or regional sports events are examples of conditions that might generate a Travel Alert.” Travel Alerts, such as the one just issued for Europe do not mean that the government will prohibit you from traveling to a location, only that it wants to inform you of potential risks that may exist at the location.
The State Department, also, issues another, more severe form of advisory called a Travel Warning when they want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. At this time, they have not issued a Travel Warning for Europe.
As we have noted previously, terrorism is a fact of modern life that each of us has to decide how we will deal with. Some will plan their vacations and have a wonderful time while abroad. Others will be nervous wrecks while traveling and not enjoy their trip. Still others will decide to delay travel until sometime in the future when they feel more comfortable with the terrorism situation. The reality is that each of these choices are appropriate for various individuals and this leads to the conclusion that you, as an individual, must evaluate the risk of travel against the rewards and decide to travel or not based on your values and intuition.
Our role is to attempt to provide you with the information that might help you make your travel decision. Below, we present the complete text of the State Department Travel Alert on Europe.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Bureau of Consular Affairs
October 3, 2010
The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks. European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.
Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services. U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.
We continue to work closely with our European allies on the threat from international terrorism, including al-Qa’ida. Information is routinely shared between the U.S. and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats.
We recommend U.S. citizens register their travel plans with the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy through the State Department’s travel registration website. Travelers may obtain up-to-date information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444 from elsewhere in the world.
For information on general crime and security issues, U.S. citizens should also consult the Department of State’s Country-Specific Information as well as the Worldwide Caution, which can be found on the Bureau of Consular Affairs website. For further information on safety tips while traveling abroad, U.S. citizens should also consult the following website: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/tips_1232.html
This Travel Alert expires on January 31, 2011.
Similar to most travelers, we have an interest in the activities of the Transportation Security Administration. We subscribe to their newsletter so we can find out when new items are published on the TSA websitehere. One item that we look at each week is the titled “TSA Week At A Glance” that reports three statistics of interest to us (because our team is composed of frequent flyers who spend a lot of time going through security checkpoints, just like the rest of you). These reports by the TSA cover travel during previous week and include the following categories of information reported from the TSA Security Checkpoints at airports around the nation:
1) Number of artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints
2) Number of firearms found at Checkpoints
3) Number of passengers who were arrested after investigation of suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents
We tracked these data from the first week in May, 2010 to the second week in September, 2010 in an attempt of measure the number of “problems” encountered by the TSA during a time period that reflects the “summer travel season. During May, 2010, a total of approximately 62 million flyers passed through the TSA security checkpoints at the airports scattered throughout the United States. We were unable to find a report on the actual passenger totals for each of these months and, instead, made the assumption that if we could use the May total as a reasonable average for the number of passengers flying each month of the summer, then we could conclude that approximately 280 million travelers passed through the TSA checkpoints for the period.
During that 140 day period, 322 firearms were found at checkpoints, 139 passengers were arrested at checkpoints for suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents and 71 travelers were arrested for artfully concealed prohibited items. The good news is that only 0.00000115 percent of the travelers were carrying firearms when they entered the security checkpoints. Of course, the number of guns is also the bad news. The distribution of the categories, by week, is shown in the graph below.
We did not attempt to subject the data to a statistical analysis, but it appears that firearms and the number of flyers are linearly related. In other words, you will find more guns at airports when more people are flying. So, if you look at the chart you will see that firearm carrying at airports peaks during the holidays associated with Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Somewhat curiously, the data seems to show that an unusual number of people were apprehended for attempting to carry firearms through the TSA security checkpoints during the week that included … Mother’s Day. What a nice present!
Our graph is the stuff of further conversation. Just how many people are there in the United States who have not yet heard that there are security checkpoints at airports? Were the people attempting to carry firearms through security checkpoints terrorists or just plain forgetful? What prohibited items are we talking about here – bombs or bottles of water? And who doesn’t know their travel documents are fraudulent? Next, what about geography? We like to think of things geographically and wonder about the geographical distribution of these statistics? Which airports? What regions? Hopefully someone is paying attention the “where” of these numbers. However, we doubt that the spatial aspects of these numbers will ever see the light of day, since we had such difficulty in gathering the simple data presented.
How These Data Were Obtained
We think it is important that you know that these data are published weekly by the TSA on their website. When we first became interested in these reports earlier this spring, we contacted TSA to see if they would provide us the statistics that they had openly published over the last calendar year. To be honest, we did not know where to start and were directed to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request Page at the TSA website and filed a simple request for the last year of the statistics published on the TSA website for the TSA Week At A Glance section. We received a speedy reply telling us that we had failed to reasonably describe the information and our request was denied.
Not to be deterred, on May 24, we tried sending an email to the “contact us” section of the TSA website requesting that they provide us the last year’s data that appeared in the TSA Week At A Glance section of their website. After all, why would you need a Freedom Of Information Act request for information that is published on the TSA website every week? We added that we published the blog that you are reading and that we thought these data would help the public appreciate the need for security checkpoints at airports.
Almost a month later on June 23, we received a note indicating that our request had been forwarded to the appropriate group for a response. On July 7, we received a note sent to us on behalf of Sterling Payne (how appropriate, and we are not making up the name) Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs, indicating that he felt that the best way for us to receive the most accurate information would be by filling out (you guessed it) a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Come on guys, this is information published on your citizen-facing website! There is nothing secret about it, or if there is, we suggest you stop publishing it each week. And anyway, if you don’t have the data, just who does?
As you might have guessed by now, we went the TSA website every week during the summer travel period and faithfully recorded the data in an Excel spreadsheet that allowed us to create the graph displayed above. Don’t ever say we are not determined to find the facts on your behalf.
Be sure to visit ThereArePlaces for information on the Best Places to visit around the world, as well as for information on travel planning, including travel safety.