From having a drink to kissing in public, a new app contains all sorts of advice on what to avoid in certain countries, writes Áilín Quinlan
Did you know that… in the Solomon Islands you can be prosecuted for swearing; in China, you’re considered an adult if you’re over 14; and that in Chad satellite phones are illegal?
Or that it’s also against the law to bring pork or porn into the United Arab Emirates — or that you may be served fake alcohol in bars in China, or have your drink spiked late at night in some bars in Cambodia?
It’s all in the recently-launched TravelWise app from the Government, a free smartphone travel facility available for download on iOS and Android.
It offers user-friendly travel advice and consular information for some 200 countries worldwide to the millions of Irish residents travelling abroad every year.
The app also provides practical information on major events abroad, such as Euro 2016 or the Rio Olympics.
It’s especially useful for those going to higher risk destinations — the App uses an easy-to-understand four-tier security system for each country.
“A lot of it is based around common-sense, but if you don’t know the information, it could cause problems, so our message is to download the app,” said a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The app provides an overview of the security risk, in terms of whether Irish citizens need to exercise a high degree of caution, as well as an explanation of potentially sensitive local laws and customs.
For travellers in the United Arab Emirates, for example, the spokesman pointed out, it’s important to know that public displays of affection are frowned upon — people can be arrested for kissing in public.
It is illegal in the UAE for women to drive, or for anyone to use bad language or offensive gestures, while pork products are banned. If you’re a woman it’s well worth knowing that the advice is to travel only in a pre-booked taxi and to avoid hailing a cab in the street.
It’s also useful to know that homosexual activity is banned.
“Do not arrive in Saudi Arabia under the influence of alcohol,” the spokesman says. The Emirati authorities consider the presence of drugs in the blood stream as possession.
If, for example, you become pregnant outside of marriage, both you and your partner could face imprisonment and or deportation — in fact doctors have asked for proof of marriage during ante-natal checks.
Clothing is a major issue — women are expected to wear modest, loose-fitting clothes and an abaya, a full-length black over-garment, while men are expected to dress in full-length trousers and shirts with long sleeves.
Local know-how is always crucial — for example some people, says the Foreign Affairs spokesman, may not be aware that in the Far East, possession of illegal drugs can bring with it very severe sentences, even, he says, in the case of the possession of very small amount of marijuana.
“This is a very common problem for younger travellers who are not necessarily aware of quite how severe the sentences are.”
It took a combination of department staff and outside experts, working on the app on a phased basis over some six months to design and develop the app.
The app’s content is available offline and information is updated on a daily basis, or more often than that if necessary.
The kind of information provided by the app was determined by market research and by the experience of Department of Foreign Affairs personnel, who get tens of thousands of calls from Irish citizens annually on everything from entry requirements to health risks terrorism or security risk, and in the 2,500 cases where consular assistant is provided in terms of for example, emergency hospitalisation, arrests or bereavement.
And of course, it works the other way too. While the customs of Ireland may seem relatively straightforward in comparison to somewhere like the United Arab Emirates, everyone needs to know the basics, no matter where they’re travelling.
An estimated 40,000 Chinese visitors come to Ireland on an annual basis — and there may be attitudinal differences that need to be pointed out in advance, explains Chinese Embassy spokesman Walter Pan:
The Embassy advises Chinese visitors to exercise respect when entering Irish churches and to avoid casually snapping photographs of children and people in general:
“In comparison with China, Ireland would be more religious and we ask visiting people to be respectful when entering churches. They may notice churches and would want to go in, and sometimes there may be a religious activity going on, such as a wedding.
“We ask them to ask permission before entering such venues and to be respectful at all times,” he says, adding that Chinese visitors will also be warned that Ireland “is among the most expensive countries in Europe, and that they should be unsurprised at higher prices”.
Prices in Dublin, for example, says Mr Pan, are higher than most of the cities in China and it is more expensive to take taxis, buses and trains here.
Attitudes to taking photographs can be an issue if people are not warned in advance: “We have noticed Chinese people travelling abroad carry big cameras and take photographs all the time.
“We advise them to ask permission if they wish to take photographs of people on the street; children playing in a park, for example, or young ladies smoking.
“They may want to take these memories home as photographs but they are not always aware that people can take offence if photographs are taken without asking permission — in China there is a more relaxed attitude to taking pictures of strangers!”
The Chinese embassy advises Chinese citizens to experience Irish pubs, particularly those featuring live music: “In urban parts of China, bars and pubs are more for young people in search of night life, and a much lower percentage of urban Chinese residents would go to pubs regularly. It’s not for everyone, whereas in Ireland pubs are the right places to go if you want a social life!”
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