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Be prepared: Global travel is becoming increasingly politicized

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 4, 2017

What are you going to do now that travel is getting more politicized?

Most Americans have been spared the ugliest parts of the politicalization of travel. That means we can, with a few exceptions, go wherever we want. There are more than 150 countries we can visit visa-free. And until most recently, there have not been any domestic document checks. That is, unless you count the TSA, its airport searches and ID checks.

Things started changing after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. First, there was the Patriot Act and the Transportation Security Administration — gathering personal data and frisking everyone at the airport. There were also new requirements introduced by our government that affected foreign visitors.

If a visa was required, many foreign travelers had to visit a consulate for an in-person interview. Upon arrival in the U.S., they were fingerprinted and photographed. Even if a formal visa is not required, there still is an "electronic system for travel authorization" that must be procured, for a $14 fee.

Soon after that, other governments initiated reciprocal measures for inbound U.S. travelers. Brazil's government started fingerprinting and photographing American visitors. Further, they boosted the cost of their visas and the time required to process the applications. Other countries started tightening visa requirements for U.S. travelers.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has made it more difficult and expensive for foreign visitors. Additionally, it seemed like the TSA and folks at the border regarded many U.S. citizens as potential terrorists.

On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed his "travel ban," targeting travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. Although key parts were blocked by the court, the Department of Homeland Security has stepped up scrutiny of Muslim travelers, whether or not they are U.S. citizens. Some citizens, as well as international visitors, are reportedly being grilled at the border about their religion and  political views.

Further, there has been increased scrutiny on inspection of travelers' smartphones, with reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are demanding travelers provide passcodes to unlock their phones for inspection.

These steps represent real threats to our ability to travel. A natural byproduct of these new regulations is that other countries will begin restricting access for U.S. citizens. It's also probable other countries may demand similar access to smartphones, electronic devices and social media accounts that U.S. border agents now are demanding.

This is the brave new world of travel. For your own privacy — and for the privacy of everyone in your social network — you should be aware of the ramifications of a border check.

If a U.S. border agent requests that you unlock your phone or provide passwords for inspection, you have to decide how to respond. If you are a U.S. citizen and you refuse, it's possible the agents will keep your device. If you allow inspection, your information and all of your friends' information might be downloaded and stored. The rules, procedures and privacy protections for this type of search are not clear.

The bottom line is, if you do not want your devices searched, don't bring them across the border.

I apologize if this seems strident, but it's important to understand this situation is changing and your personal and business privacy is on the line.

There are variations on this theme: You can scrub your devices before crossing the border — storing the data in the cloud. Then after you cross the border, you can reload your devices.

Alternatively, you can store your data in the cloud and then buy a new device once you cross the border. Or, you can hope you are not targeted for a search.

As the rules for international travel continue to change, there are other important considerations in addition to crossing the border.

You should let your loved ones know your itinerary in advance. You should alert your financial institutions to when and where you are traveling, and if you plan to use your credit or debit cards while abroad.

The U.S. State Department offers a free program called STEP, the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program. This provides a way for the U.S. embassy to alert you in case of natural disasters, civil unrest or family emergencies.

When planning your trip, it's good to research if there are dangerous situations at your destination. For example, on a recent round-the-world trip, I had planned to visit The Gambia in western Africa. However, elections had just been held there, and a friend in that country said the volatile situation "could lead to military confrontations." That was all the information I needed to delay my plans.

The British Home Office provides curated travel advice on security and terrorism, health, local customs and natural disasters. More than 200 countries are covered.

The State Department also regularly updates its information on countries, including travel alerts and warnings.

As the United States puts more stringent travel restrictions in place, it makes travel more difficult for everyone — and it's logical that visits from foreign nationals will decrease. In fact, initial research since the travel ban issued in January shows a drop in searches for U.S. flights from abroad. There was one exception: Inquiries for flights to the U.S. from Russia increased by more than 80 percent, according to the Feb. 15 issue of The Economist.

The political battles in Washington are affecting regular travelers — whether or not they are U.S. citizens. It's best to be prepared.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

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