State Department Continues to Advise Against International Travel

March 15, 2021 by Kate Michael
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Karen King.

WASHINGTON — COVID-19 has caused colossal damage to the U.S. travel industry, grounding airlines, emptying hotels, and stopping almost all business and leisure travel for months. The State Department isn’t suggesting this will change any time soon.

In a discussion with travel professionals, including booking agents, Deputy Assistant Secretary Karen King told the Travel and Adventure Show, via a virtual webcast, that the State Department still could not recommend international travel due to the uncertainty of the times.

As head of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, overseeing citizen services around the world, King is the highest-ranking American with a primary focus on the safety and security of Americans overseas. While she recognized that her guidance would add to the ongoing trials of the travel and tourism industry, she stressed that travel right now was too unstable to endorse.

“I know sometimes it can seem like we’re travel grinches, but there are risks out there, and we want people to travel as safely as possible,” King said. “We are avid travelers ourselves… and we are happiest when the facts out there permit us to say ‘Travel Advisory Level One.’”

Travel advisories are just one of the functions of the State Department, which facilitates and protects U.S. citizens while abroad. King said they “allow U.S. citizens to make informed decisions based on hard data and informed analysis.”

Travel advisory rubrics, which analyze and determine levels one through four, are reviewed every six or twelve months, though a specific rubric was created specifically for COVID to take into account lockdowns, airport closures, and a general consideration on how COVID is affecting each country. Prior to COVID, most of the world was Level Two, meaning ‘exercise increased caution,’ and COVID has reduced the remaining number of Level One countries dramatically.

“At this time, the State Department and CDC recommend against non-essential travel overseas,” said King. 

One of the main reasons why she cautioned against travel is that Americans are not adequately preparing for the risks associated with travel to those areas that are currently open. 

“The public needs to plan and prepare thoroughly to travel,” she said. 

Per a January 2021 directive, proof of a negative COVID test or recovery from COVID is required pre-departure for all air passengers — U.S. citizen or not — arriving in the United States. Even if vaccinated, air passengers will still need a negative COVID test; no exception will be given even with proof of vaccination.

“It’s a disruptive situation if [the traveler] can’t get back to work on time… and doesn’t have the savings to stay indefinitely,” King said. She worries about what might happen if travelers can’t find COVID testing out of the country or don’t have adequate contingency plans if they test positive before their return to the United States. 

“We can provide emergency passports and emergency local requirements and info,” King said. “But we can’t pay for medical or hotel bills or buy airline tickets for individuals depending on circumstances that might come into play. We also can’t get U.S. citizens out of jail or pay for attorneys.” 

She further cautioned that American medical insurance often doesn’t work overseas, and that travel insurance may not cover COVID-related cases. 

Should travelers continue with their international plans, she highly recommended they enroll in the State Department’s STEP, or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which the agency used in the early days of the pandemic to identify and repatriate almost 100,000 U.S. citizens when countries closed their borders with very little notice, as well as provide close to 43,000 emergency passports to U.S. citizens in 2020.

Despite King’s prudence about the current state of the industry, she remains hopeful about future travel and the free flow of people around the world. “The situation may very well be different by the second half of this year,” she said.

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