Why You Should Ignore Official Travel Warnings

The US State Department and many other foreign governments post official lists of travel warnings. There can be some good information, but the blanket travel warnings are  almost entirely useless. Why?

I’m going to use the US State Department warnings as an example, but they are similar to both the UK and Australia. The US State Department ranks countries from a 1-4.

  • Exercise Normal Precautions (1)
  • Exercise Increased Precautions (2)
  • Reconsider Travel (3)
  • Do Not Travel (4)

Seems pretty simple doesn’t it? That’s part of the problem. Many of these countries are enormous. The Democratic Republic of Congo is just about the size of Europe. Afghanistan is the size of Texas. These government agencies may have great intentions, but it simply is not possible to label areas as safe or unsafe when they are that size. There are areas within some of the level 4 countries that I would consider as a “2”. There are areas within level 2 countries that I would consider a “4”.  The warnings try to address this issue by providing more detail. For example they warn to not go to the northern part of Mali. That’s good advice, but it doesn’t mean the entire country is a “4”. It simply means you shouldn’t go to the parts that are a “4.”

The warnings also show countrywide bias, meaning that even the areas that truly are safe are warned to be more dangerous than they really are. For example the official warnings would never admit to you that Mazar I Sharif in Afghanistan is just as safe as many parts of Europe, but the statistics show that it really is.

I can live with that though. Tell people that a country is really dangerous and they will be very cautious and survive. Fine. I DO have an issue with it going the other way around. There are countries that are labeled as a “3” or “2” that have parts in them that are incredibly dangerous. Want to go somewhere that you might die? Try Darfur, a pleasant region of Sudan, widely noted for genocide and war. Don’t worry though, it’s only listed a “3”.

Let me give some examples of inaccurate rankings:

Level 2:

Algeria, Republic of Congo, Papau New Guinea

Level 3:

Guatemala, Turkey, Russia, Honduras

Notice anything wrong there? Those countries should be switched. I can’t take a list seriously if they are claiming that Turkey is more dangerous than Algeria. Why are the ranking so ridiculous? The rankings are so ridiculous because the US State Department punishes countries that we don’t like by giving them high rankings. We don’t like Turkey, we don’t like Russia, we don’t like Cuba, ETC.   As a result we bump those countries up a ranking.

We also bump countries that have a high number of tourists that get into trouble. Where do a lot of rookie tourists go and get into trouble? Guatemala…Honduras… etc.
Is Guatemala more dangerous than Republic of Congo? Absolutely not, but more rookie tourists go there, so the government bumps up the danger level in order to dissuade them.

The amount of visitors that an area gets can be a useful tool when you combine it with data regarding the amount of incidents that has happened. For example, you might hear that 20 tourists got robbed or mugged in Cancun. That sounds alarming until you consider that thousands of novice (and drunk) travelers go there every week. Conversely you mind hear that 2 tourists got shot at a hotel in Mali. That sounds like a pretty small amount, until you consider the extremely low number of tourists that go there. When you hear statistics about crime and violence make sure you look up the other statistics to compare them to.

The problem with this “country bumping” is that many people know that Guatemala and Honduras are not that dangerous, so they look at the list and see DRC, Chad, Sudan etc.  They then assume that they are equipped to go to those countries, when in reality they are not. Going to Sudan is NOT like going to Guatemala or anywhere else in South America.

Is there anything useful about the rankings? Absolutely, if a country is listed as a “4” you better not go there without a plan. You could easily get yourself killed. However, you can still go to these countries if you do your research and find out what areas are safe. I do look at the lists from time to time. Some of the warnings can provide a basis for further research. However, local knowledge and more accurate information is available from websites like Wikitravel, my own website, reaching out to guides, etc.

In summary:
– You can use these lists as a very rough guideline

– Do your own research into what areas are dangerous

– Some countries are ranked higher because of political reasons

– Just because a country is ranked as a “2” or a “3” doesn’t mean it is really as safe as others of that level

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