By JAMES W. BROSNAN
Scripps Howard News Service
June 17, 2005
And that's what worries State Department consular officials who respond when an American overseas turns up missing or in jail.
"Unfortunately, some people go abroad and think they are immune from whatever the local law is or they forget the circumstances in which they find themselves," said Daniel Smith, principal deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs, in an interview.
The case of missing 18-year-old Natalee Holloway of Birmingham, Ala., has focused attention on the potential dangers to young people traveling abroad. However, it has been a concern for the State Department for years.
Travel advisories for every country are posted at http://travel.state.gov. The department now regularly issues special spring-break travel warnings for the three most popular hot spots south of the border.
Mexico alone draws more than 100,000 teenagers and young adults during spring break each year. At least 20,000 travel to Jamaica annually and thousands more go to the Bahamas, according to the State Department.
"Notwithstanding the feelings of having barely left the country, they are in fact subject to different laws and different jurisdictions when they travel and they need to obey those laws," Smith said.
Alcohol is involved in most of the arrests, accidents and violent crimes suffered by U.S. citizens on spring-break trips, according to the State Department warnings.
"Because it is spring break and people tend to overindulge, sometimes they need to be aware of their physical surroundings and certain dangers that may be out there if they aren't careful," Smith said.
Holloway was last seen leaving an Aruba bar, Carlos 'N Charlie's, around 1:30 a.m. on May 30 with three young males who are now being held by Aruban authorities. She was on a post-graduation trip with more than 100 other students from Mountain Brook High School and seven adults.
The United States has the highest legal drinking age in the world at 21. Throughout Central America and the Caribbean, the legal age is 18 and in some Western European countries youngsters can legally drink at 16.
"You'd be surprised at how many parents don't realize that" when they let their children go overseas, said Peggy Batey, executive director of Alabama Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "But the kids know it."
Nor are parents aware that many teens drink far more than they did when they were young, Batey said.
One 1998 study, published in the Journal of American College Health, surveyed 442 women and 341 men who went on spring-break trips. The average man said he had 18 drinks a day; the average woman 10. More than half the men and four out of 10 women said that, at least once during the trip, they drank until they became sick or passed out.
No U.S. agency keeps an exact count of how many of the 60 million visits by Americans to foreign countries are made by persons under 21 traveling alone or in groups. Nor does the FBI keep statistics on the number of crimes committed against Americans abroad.
In the 2004 federal fiscal year, U.S. consular officials conducted 2,616 searches for missing Americans in addition to the more than 15,000 inquires generated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, according to Smith.
The vast majority of those reported missing each year are found, fortunately, said Smith. Most often the "missing" are those who simply don't touch base with family or friends for a couple of days or weeks.
Cases like that of Natalee Holloway "tend to attract an enormous amount of attention and an emotional outpouring of sympathy on the part of all of us as Americans and as Arubans in this case as well, but they are in fact the exception rather than the rule," Smith said.
He added that Aruban cooperation in the case so far has been "superb.
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