Should Travel Warnings Stop Us From Traveling?

Derek Perspectives, Travel Tips & Advice 28 Comments


Right now I’m actually in the stages of deciding where my next adventure will take me, and as a result, it was only natural that I check the US Department of State’s Travel Warning website. This is generally how I begin any of my travel planning, not in order to learn which countries I should circumvent, but quite the opposite, to learn which regions I should consider visiting.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the growing misconception that Mexico is a dangerous destination that should be avoided by travelers. So when I checked the Travel Warning website today, it came as no surprise to find Mexico listed right there after Mali and Mauritania as places to avoid, despite the fact that the closest I’ve come to any danger during my seven months of living down here was when I encountered this thing below while on the beach.

eel

And it is this Travel Warning that explains why, during my recent six day trip to Florida to visit my family, everybody I spoke with asked me the exact same question:

“Why are you living in Mexico when its so dangerous?”

I really do understand why one would ask this, especially considering the unusually high volume of negative news articles and reports (in print, on television and on the internet) and even an ‘anti-Spring Break in Mexico’ public service announcement, currently circulating around the US.

My answer to this question typically involves an explanation about how my life in Mexico is about as peaceful as life gets and that not only have I yet to find myself in the midst of a shoot-out, drug bust or gang battle, I have yet to see one, read about one or hear others talking about one in any of the dozens of places I’ve visited or lived in throughout this land.

And if further reinforcement is needed, I simply point out the seemingly infinite occurrences of violent, unspeakable crimes that seem to take place on US soil on such a shockingly regular basis. Truthfully, the chances often seem much higher that I would be caught up in some random shooting in the US than here in Mexico.

This thought alone makes me wonder if the USA itself should be on the Department of State’s ‘Travel Warning’ list?

THE “LIST”

Before I stray too far, here’s the list of countries that the Department of State does currently warn US citizens about traveling to: Afghanistan, Algeria, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Israel & the West Bank and Gaza, Kenya, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Yemen. (The Australian and British versions are quite similar as well.)

It’s a diverse list. And while some of these places should probably be avoided (Iraq and Sudan immediately come to mind) as travel destinations by anyone except the most intrepid and experienced of travelers, I fear that many of the other nations will suffer from the same fate as Mexico. Now that they are labeled ‘dangerous’, for reasons ranging from large demonstrations, possible harassment, political tension, border clashes, anti-US sentiments, lawlessness, terrorism and general security concerns, most people will simply cross them off of their list of potential travel destinations, even if they have a desire to travel there.

I suspect, and this is based upon my own experiences and those of other travelers close to me, that many of these places are not actually dangerous to travelers, but simply warrant a little further research, some additional preparation and perhaps an extra dose of caution in order to ensure one stays clear of any potential trouble. In no way am I advocating putting oneself into a dangerous situation, but I do believe that a rewarding travel experience to such places as Israel, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Lebanon is more than possible and shouldn’t be abandoned simply because of ‘the list’.

IF TRAVEL WARNINGS DICTATED MY TRAVELS…

…I would have missed out on most of my life-changing adventures.

My visit to Pakistan immediately comes to mind. While few would argue that there are risks involved with traveling here, the most potentially dangerous situation I faced proved to be one of the most educational nights of my life in the end. And by learning some basic Urdu, purchasing local clothes and familiarizing myself with some general local customs before I crossed the border, I was able to somewhat ‘blend in’, which led to a much deeper and safer glimpse into the culture of this troubled nation.

There is also Indonesia, another frequent recipient of a Department of State Travel Warning. Yet when I traveled across the Indonesian island of Sumatra while such a warning was in effect, the only violence I encountered was the overly-enthusiastic shaking of my hand by almost everyone I encountered along the way. The people of Sumatra never tried to harm me, instead inviting me into their villages and homes and sharing with me the wonders (Lake Maninjaui in particular) of their awe-inspiring, yet seldom-visited, island.

When I traveled to Nepal during the height of the Maoist insurgency, I expected to face a spattering of violent protests, robberies and kidnappings, just as the Travel Warning stated. However, from the remote West to Pokhara, Kathmandu and into the Himalayas, all I found were endless smiles and displays of generosity from the Nepali people. Even with the strict 8pm curfew in Kathmandu imposed by the military at the time, the biggest threat to my well-being seemed to be the landslides that occurred all over the country as a result of the monsoon rains.

And last week I emailed a friend of mine who is currently traveling through Rwanda (another favorite of the Travel Warning list) and I asked for her initial impressions. She replied with a lengthy email, one that included the words ‘beautiful’, ‘peaceful’, ‘friendly’, ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ more times than one would find in a description of Switzerland. And when she wrote that the entire population of Kigali participates in mandatory community service on the fourth Saturday of every month, proudly helping to maintain as clean and attractive a city as possible, all I could think was, “in Rwanda?”.

Ask anyone if they would consider traveling to Rwanda and I’m quite confident that 99% of respondents would think your nuts. But in reality, there is no more threat of danger in Rwanda than there is anywhere else.

LOOKING BEYOND THE TRAVEL WARNINGS

We need to look beyond travel warnings and advisories. While it is important that we take caution when deciding where to go, and avoid jogging off to places such as Baghdad in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt thinking that we’ll be perfectly safe, in reality, we should use these warnings as starting points for further research.

When we are in search of first-hand knowledge and possess a strong desire to visit a particular country, for whatever reason it may be, we owe it not only to ourselves, but to those people we hope to interact with and learn from, to not turn our backs simply because we have been told the population may erupt into protests.

One thing we can do to assess the true risk of a particular destination is to seek out and communicate with others who may be currently or who have recently visited the country in question. Who better to offer direct, useful advice than such a person? Chances are, such shared information from other travelers will be more than enough to keep us smart, safe and far from any potential danger.

It is difficult to imagine my travels without Mexico or Honduras or Pakistan or any of the other places deemed ‘dangerous’, those places whose true danger in the end proved to be the threat of a sore jaw as a result of excessive smiling.

Of course, there was that one kidnapping in Bangladesh, but even that too was well worth it!


I’m curious about your thoughts on travel warnings…have you visited a country that was on ‘the list’ and had a completely positive experience? Or perhaps you’ve chosen to avoid any country with a warning?

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Comments 28

  1. Sarah

    I think what you are doing is really amazing, and I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to travel to as many nations and learn about as many cultures.

    I have been to Israel on two occasions actually. While there, I was very close to the borders with Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria (I could actually see into them). While I was in Israel I felt incredibly safe the whole time. It is one of the best places I have been, although my list is no where near as impressive as yours. I highly recommend traveling there.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sarah – I appreciate the comment and that’s great that you’ve done some traveling already 🙂 I’ve actually been to all of the countries you mentioned that surround Israel but not to Israel yet. It’s definitely on my list and hopefully I’ll make it there this year!

  2. KNizam

    some countries are big enough for us travelers to explore, not all 100% part of that countries are at risk. travelers need to manage their risk, it’s called calculated risk. sometimes the pictures you can get is at the places you will never expected (and risky). i believe we still do have a lot of nice people in this world. just don’t be at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong people 🙂

  3. Federico

    Totally agree

    If I had followed the travel warnings I would have missed way too many destinations. My second backpacking trip ever was to Guatemala about 8 years ago, and there was a warning for the country- not sure if it is still now. Anyhow, particularly temple 4 in Tikal was highly recommended against visiting because of armed robbers. Turned out I got the best pictures of my trip

    Just been back from Colombia and it one of South Amercia’s best countries

    Enjoy!

    Federico
    maitravelsite.com
    .-= Federico´s last blog ..Photo of the week =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Federico! Welcome to the site and thanks for sharing your thoughts! I also would have missed out on half of the most amazing places I’ve visited had I followed the government-issued travel warnings. And I’m happy to hear that you just went for it as well and that your experiences proved to be rewarding in the end. That’s how it usually turns out and it’s such a shame that so many people stay away from certain countries just because of an isolated issue.

      And Colombia is definitely on my list…I just may be asking for some advice when the time eventually arrives to head down there one day!

    1. Earl

      Hey SHABL – I agree, the warnings are designed to keep the most un-experienced travelers away as they are ultimately the ones who would find themselves facing the most risk. But once you pick up a little ‘traveler’s common sense’, you’re generally able to make a much more informed decision about whether or not a certain place poses a threat to your own safety.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Erin

    It´s definitely true that the government warnings are overly cautious. The media also doesn´t help – we´ve found that things sound a lot worse when you are at home than when you are actually in the country. We visited Nepal (in the lead up to elections) and Sri Lanka and never had a problem at all. We did benefit from the empty beaches in Sri Lanka though!

    It´s important to do your own research, especially from other travellers who have recently visited the country, and then make up your own mind.

    1. Earl

      Hey Erin! Empty beaches are indeed a major benefit of looking beyond the travel warnings while everyone else stays at home! And I’m glad you mentioned your positive experiences in both Nepal and Sri Lanka as those are two places that have had their fair share of warnings over the past few years yet seem to always be favorites of travelers who choose to go anyway.

  5. Anil

    The State Department warnings are usually too general to do any good. Germany was under a warning late last year due to a suspected and thwarted terrorist plot. Some of the southern Philippine islands aren’t necessarily safe but doesn’t mean the entire country should be avoided. I wish they had a better system for giving real safety information.

    1. Earl

      Hey Anil – A better system is indeed needed. Just hearing the word ‘warning’ is enough to scare most people away and to immediately label a country as a danger zone, even if the warning is simply related to an isolated area or event within a country or a suspected threat. The Philippines is a good example of that.

      That’s why I also tend to seek out other travelers from around the world, who always seem to be the best source of safety information and advice.

  6. Shannon OD

    Such a good topic that you bring up Earl – it’s intriguing how much we as a world fear the unknown…and the penchant for labeling things. My dad was actually way more freaked out my my Central America travels than any other place I went on my RTW – I don’t get that! Although there is a lot of talk about robberies here on the roads, it really hasn’t been at all like I expected based off of the fears of friends in the US – the reality of traveling (with safety precautions and knowledge) is just so different than these “Travel Warnings”
    .-= Shannon OD´s last blog ..A Little Life & Death…The Carpets of Semana Santa (Holy Week) =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Shannon – I was actually thinking of you as I wrote this post, especially as you might be heading over to Honduras soon. Central America is a great example of a region that, for travelers, rarely lives up to its image as a dangerous, rough, crime-ridden section of the world. While dangers do exist of course, like you said, smart travelers are rarely going to encounter them.

      And now that you’ve been down in Central America for a while, I hope you father is feeling a little more at ease!!

  7. Angeline

    Hey Earl,
    We were in Puerto Vallarta and points north and south last November; Sayulita, San Pancho, El Tuito, and loved it,loved it,loved it. Not one issue encountered or seen while we were there. Thank God we didn’t stay in our box and give up that trip because of The List.

    1. Earl

      Hola Angeline – I guess you really loved that part of Mexico!! Me too! And of course, there’s no sign of drug battles, gang violence or even swine flu…there’s only a beautiful, peaceful, friendly country to explore. I hate to think of how many people are avoiding Mexico because of that warning.

      Hopefully you’ll get a chance to return to that area this year as well!

  8. Liz

    Hi Earl,

    I agree with your post. A few years ago I decided to go to Zimbabwe, and no one supported my decision. I didn’t care, I just was responsible, I used my common sense and I had a wonderful time. =)

    1. Earl

      Exactly Liz. Common sense is often the most valuable security measure that we can take when traveling. Glad you enjoyed Zimbabwe!

  9. Simo

    Hey Earl,

    So true! Having just come back from the Philippines, (which both the USA and NZ has traveling warnings for) and it was great. I had a ball and never felt in danger because I was always aware of my surroundings and used common sense (and also was with people I trusted.)

    You can’t make decisions based solely on travel advisory warnings, that’s for sure.

    1. Earl

      Hey Simo – Thanks for sharing and I’m happy to hear you had such a good time over there in the Philippines! Of course, its no surprise that you came back all in one piece and without getting caught up in some dangerous situation. It’s that common sense again that seems to always be more than enough to protect us from any potential trouble.

      And I’d love to make it over to the Philippines myself one of these days…

  10. Dina

    Earl, your article reminds me of a friend of mine that I chatted the other day. We were talking about I and Ryan’s possibility of going to India sometimes in the near future, for a period of time. Her comment was surprising. She said that I’m lucky that now I’m in Sydney (where she lives) and couldn’t understand why I want to be in India for a period of time. She said I won’t like it much there since it’s not “sparkly” like Sydney, and a bit dangerous too. That got me speechless (with eye lids raised and mouth open). For that kind comment, I don’t even know where to start explaining, that there are just so much to see in the world, and that the differences are what make a journey exciting. For her, enjoying life is always about being settled in a modern place. I think she threw pity on me of being on the road!

    (btw, intriguing fish you have up there!)
    .-= Dina´s last blog ..Our three best kept travel secrets =-.

    1. Earl

      When you hear that kind of comment, you really can’t explain yourself at all. Everyone’s different of course and just as it would be difficult for us to understand the choices your friend makes, it’s difficult for her to understand your decisions as well, especially considering that they are outside of the normal path of life. But with that said, you two are clearly enjoying your travels and the rewards it offers, so you should never doubt for one moment what you’re doing. And if you want to go to India, then you should go to India!!

      1. Dina

        Yep, India and surrounds are high in my travel list. I really want to see Nepal and Tibet as well.
        With those comments, I wonder what people will tell me if I tell them I want to go to those countries (that happen to be listed in the travel warning). Some didn’t like it when I told them I want to see the Middle East. About the potential danger, I explain to some friends that we will learn the situation and take some precaution, or even detour if it turns out to be too dangerous. Still, it’s difficult to convey why I want to be there at all.
        (Btw, North Korea is currently high in my list.)
        .-= Dina´s last blog ..Our three best kept travel secrets =-.

  11. Ryan

    I don’t put a lot of stock in travel warnings. They’re all about avoiding high profile, newsworthy dangers like gun battles or kidnappings. Those risks are very small compared to the risks all of us take every day without a second thought – traffic accidents, etc.
    .-= Ryan´s last blog ..Our three best kept travel secrets =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ryan – You’re exactly right. You never see a travel warning for a place like India due to ‘crazy drivers and a high probability of getting into a car accident’, when that is far more likely to occur than being kidnapped or caught in a gun fight over there. Generally, the risks we face at home are the same risks we face when traveling and whatever prompts a government to issue a travel warning, is something that travelers will almost never face.

    1. Earl

      Hey Carlos – Well, I’m amazed that I’ve already lasted seven months in Mexico! Usually, I get the urge to move on to a new destination after a couple of months.

      As for that ‘creature’ in the photo, your guess is as good as mine. Any guesses? It was definitely one of the nastiest creatures I’ve ever come across and would love for someone to tell me what it was…

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – To be honest, I have no idea what that thing was! There were about twenty people on the beach at the time and not one person (including the locals of that town) had ever seen one before or knew what it could be. It had huge, sharp teeth and a large mouth but it’s ‘body’ seemed so abnormally short. I suppose it’s just some sort of crazy eel, but whatever it is, I certainly don’t want to encounter one again!

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