Last weekend at the New York Times Travel Show, a well-dressed young woman spotted my press credentials and introduced herself. She was from the State Department, she said, and she’d like to bring me over to Deputy Assistant Secretary Brenda Sprague.
I admit I was taken aback. Usually, when someone from the government taps you for a little chat, it’s not a good thing. But it’s precisely that mistrust of bureaucracy that the State Department appears eager to correct as soon as possible. In a surprising turn, the Obama administration’s State Department is making a true effort to reach out to travelers.
On the road, I’m always jealous of the travelers from Australia and New Zealand. When they need something from their government, it’s often a breeze. Their taxes are repaid with international support. Someone answers their calls at their diplomatic outposts. It seems like wherever they venture, they can all but pop into the nearest embassy for a beer and a back rub whenever they’re bored. Here in New York, I’ve even attended boozy Friday afternoon wine mixers at the Australian consulate.
But U.S. consulates and embassies are never welcome a weary traveler, not even if they were born with the privilege of carrying a passport with a bald eagle stamped on the cover. Indeed, the diplomatic fortresses we build abroad, such as the bunker on London’s Grosvenor Square and the $750 million citadel in Baghdad, are resolutely intent on keeping us out. They are designed out of an imperialistic marriage between pessimism and industry, and they’re geared to making inroads for business but halting independent Americans at the machine gun-guarded door. People around the world are confronted by those impassive slabs and wonder what sort of dastardly machinations are being hatched within.
A degree of detachment makes often makes sense, of course, either for security reasons or simply because they’re routinely swarmed with visa-seekers. In Krakow, I remember having to pick my way through a mob of what appeared to be boisterous protesters, only to realize when I got to its head that they were actually jostling for a spot in the queue for a paperwork blessing by my country’s invisible bureaucrats.
At the Travel Show, the State Department representative proudly told me that they were attending the show to get the word out about STEP, or the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This long-overdue program is designed to supply citizens with a level of hospitable consular support that other nations take for granted. If a traveler can surmount their malaise at registering their whereabouts with the federal government, they can receive email updates about local security warnings, and if the worst happens, as during the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, American seekers will actually come knocking on doors to make sure you’re all right.
The public relations push hasn’t stopped there. Today, the State Department held a live chat about keeping safe over Spring Break. This is a topic that travel journalists are often asked to hit this time of year. (Here I am on CBS last year talking about the same subject, spending much energy to gently assure viewers that Mexico is hardly a nefarious underworld of malfeasance.) So it’s gratifying to see the government trying to anticipate our questions for a change.
Mind you, I still don’t take my government’s word as the only word that matters. I have found that Australia’s list of travel warnings is often less politicized (or at least, politicized in different ways) than our State Department’s travel warnings. But the outreach is important to me. It’s encouraging to have an administration that values international travel or at the very least acknowledges that some of us are doing it.
You might have noticed that the White House has also been much more attentive to communicating with citizens on the same level that we communicate with ourselves. It’s tweeting now, it’s pumping out annotated live streams of important speeches, and it’s beavering away on Facebook.
Uncle Sam may not be ready to invite the masses inside for free Big Macs and Cokes, and behind the scenes he’s still an imperialistic fellow who’s more interested in fostering business deals than helping backpackers, but at least he’s working harder to repaint his impenetrable bunkers in a cheerier shade.