If there's "acute danger to life and limb" for German citizens, the Foreign Ministry announces a travel warning. But assigning the highest level of alarm can have grave consequences for some countries.
"Urgently warned against travel" - that's the highest level in the German Foreign Ministry's travel alert system. Currently, alerts are active for nine countries. But they are ultimately recommendations, and not prohibitions: "The decision to undertake a journey lies with you alone," it's clarified on the ministry's website.
Countries presently warned against include Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Haiti. Partial warnings exist for 14 further nations - for example, Egypt - where visitors are advised to avoid certain regions. Aside from avoiding the capital city Cairo, travelers to Egypt are warned against visits to the Nile Delta, the tourist areas Luxor and Assuan, the Sinai Peninsula, and the region bordering Libya.
Travel warnings take economic toll
Travel attorney Ernst Führich of the Kempten University of Applied Sciences described travel warnings as "leading to economic losses for travel businesses and additionally intervene with the economy of the affected country." If a formal travel warning is issued, travelers are usually able to cancel their trips for free. When that happens, the travel industry is stuck with the costs, Führich told DW.
The target country also suffers from lost tourist revenues as a result of such a warning. During the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, the numbers of visitors dropped precipitously. In the spring months of 2011, half as many German tourists visited Egypt in comparison with the previous year. In light of recent unrest there, a similar trend can be expected.
Rainer Herret, head of the German-Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Cairo, said of the German tourism industry in Egypt: "We've already lost summer, and now we'll surely lose the winter season again."
Herret added that the partial travel warning has little influence on German trade - only an acute threat would spur German companies to get their workers out of the country. Only rarely does the German Foreign Ministry recommend that all Germans leave a country - Somalia and Syria represent current cases.
Gathering and assessing information
The German embassy on location generally gathers and evaluates information on potential threats, then makes recommendations to the respective regional department at the foreign office. If necessary, the suggestion is reviewed before it's published by the ministry's central headquarters.
Workers at the ministry described the criteria for travel advisories and warnings as not transparent, citing differing situations and information in each country.
The embassies gather their information from various sources: Embassies of other countries, the German intelligence agency BND, the United Nations, honorary consulates, the local press, and from economic sources, among others. "Of course the embassy speaks with chambers of commerce; it talks to businesses on site in order to inform itself very precisely," Herret said.
Economic interests over citizen safety?
Führich believes that German economic interests also play a role in decisions for or against travel warnings and that lobbyists within the tourism industry also have an influence. He accuses the German Foreign Ministry of more quickly announcing travel advisories for countries with few German tourists. Egypt is not among these - Germans form the second-largest group of tourists there.
"The safety of German travelers in the country constitutes the decisive criterion for updating travel and security advisories," was the statement from the official side in response to DW's inquiry on the issue.
A different source within the German Foreign Ministry said that economic interests are present in the flow of information, but don't constitute the pivotal factor for a travel warning.
But Herret thinks that travel advisories and warnings ultimately play a relatively minor role. He believes that what Germans see on television determines whether or not they go, for example, to Egypt: "When they turn on the tube and get the impression that the whole country is in the throes of civil war."