CBSN

Travel Anxiety Grounds Americans

Edie Falco, right, reacts as Bill Sage embraces her son, Anderson, 4, before Falco threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the New York Mets faced the Washington Nationals in a baseball game at Citi Field in New York, Wednesday, May 27, 2009.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Tom Rich planned a family vacation to Britain but changed his mind after the deadly poison ricin turned up in a London apartment during the arrest of terrorist suspects.

"I just don't think it's the right time to go," says Rich, of Duxbury, Mass. "I don't think we'll do anything this summer."

Wherever tourists congregate, the story is much the same. Dreams of seeing distant lands are being deferred because of SARS, terrorism, the aftermath of war and a multitude of other anxieties stirred by world tensions and risks.

Business travel is being curbed, too.

Karin Hagen has traveled the world in her accounting job with Lufthansa, but the East Meadow, N.Y., resident quickly canceled a business trip with her staff to Toronto when the SARS virus surfaced in that city.

"If they have a seminar in Singapore" - another area with cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome - "I guarantee we won't be there," she said.

Of 250 companies surveyed this month by the Travel Industry Association of America, 55 percent reported decreased travel, especially to and from Asia, because of SARS. The group also found that 71 percent of Americans aren't interested in foreign travel, and 31 percent of those cited war or the economy as reasons.

Add to that the drumbeat of State Department warnings about countries or areas in which travel by Americans isn't considered safe, and it's easy to see why some travelers are fearful.

But is the world really a more dangerous place these days, or is it that Americans are simply more wary since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?

Dr. Frank A. Ghinassi, a psychiatrist at University of Pittsburgh's Medical Center, says anxieties have been building over two years.

"The American culture, which has long prided itself on rugged individualism, has also been buoyed by a sense of youthful invulnerability," Ghinassi said. "Over the last year or two, that's been worn away a bit by a world which doesn't necessarily agree with that."

Events that are out of peoples' control, like terrorism, war and SARS, generate fears based more on emotions than logic, experts say.

"When we're threatened by a situation the first thing we're going to do is worry and attempt to control it, work out all the details so we feel safe," said Dr. Reid Wilson, author of "Don't Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks." "If that's not sufficient, then we avoid."

Or, as Ghinassi puts it: "When people get concerned, their horizons narrow."

Perhaps no one has witnessed that more than travel agents swamped by last-minute cancellations of business travel to China, Hong Kong and other areas where SARS has broken out.

"Asia is a tough sell right now," said Andy Poerschke, sales manager for Around the World Travel, whose Washington office is filled with glossy travel brochures that wax eloquent about Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.

They might as well be on the moon, Poerschke acknowledges gloomily.

"It's not just SARS," he said. "It's the Gulf war and the bad economy. It's not a thing that's going to be over in two or three weeks."

Mike Benmohamed of Skyway Travel Inc., said he has seen an increase in domestic travel, primarily to the American West, as his clients opt not to travel abroad and, especially, not to fly.

"I have never sold a train ticket to Oklahoma," he said. "This year I did."

Amtrak confirms a big jump in western rail travel. Traffic on the Chicago-to-Seattle route, for example, was up 27 percent through March over the same period last year, and travel on the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route was up 40 percent, said spokeswoman Karina Van Veen.

Americans who do venture abroad won't get much reassurance from the State Department's travel warnings and guidance for foreign travel to specific countries.

In Afghanistan, for instance, travelers may encounter terrorists not flushed out by last year's war - along with "land mines, banditry, armed rivalry among political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks using vehicular or other bombs," the State Department notes.

Aircraft flying over Kenya have to watch out for "terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles." Americans in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are advised to avoid "restaurants and cafes, shopping areas and malls, pedestrian zones, public buses and bus stops or other crowded venues."

Even people considering the Caribbean might think twice after reading State Department guidance.

Aruba, for instance, has "no known extremist groups or areas of instability." But: "Cases of Dengue Fever, a sometimes-fatal mosquito-borne illness for which there is no vaccine or cure, are occasionally reported on the island."

Psychologists say it's important not to exaggerate risks. After all, the number of SARS cases worldwide is still low, and air travel is quite safe.

"Is the risk of getting in a plane and flying to Canada or China greater than the risk of driving a car on U.S. highways?" asks Ghinassi. "Probably not. We can't afford to live a life where a potential incident freezes us."

By Eileen Putman