These days, you're probably not planning a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan -- the United States and other developed nations are currently advising citizens against all non-essential travel to these countries. But a government travel warning doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad idea to plan a trip to a particular part of the world. In fact, within the past few years the governments of the U.S., Canada and the U.K. have also released advisories about the following countries: Thailand, Mexico, China, India and the United States.
All of these are popular tourist destinations (if not home!). But before you decide to avoid these countries altogether -- or to move to Canada -- it's worth taking a closer look at what a government's travel warnings mean, why they're released and how to evaluate them.
What Is a Travel Advisory?
Governments issue travel advisories to let their citizens know about safety concerns that may affect travel to a particular country or region. In the United States, these warnings are issued by the State Department.
Travel advisories are released for a variety of reasons, including terrorism, natural disasters, political unrest, wars, health emergencies and outbreaks of crime. Travel warnings may also cover areas of the world where a government does not have the ability to respond to the problems of citizens traveling there -- for example, if the government doesn't have an embassy in a particular country, or if the functioning of its embassy is threatened by local violence.
Many governments make a distinction between long- and short-term travel advisories. The U.S. State Department issues travel warnings for ongoing problems such as civil wars and unstable governments, while travel alerts cover temporary issues such as natural disasters or election-related demonstrations.
A travel advisory -- no matter how strongly worded -- cannot legally stop you from traveling to a particular place. After reading an advisory, it is up to you to decide whether to heed or ignore the advice. While your government will try to help you if you run into trouble abroad, you will always be traveling at your own risk.
Evaluating Travel Warnings
Not all travel warnings are created equal. When deciding how seriously to take a particular travel advisory, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
1. Is the entire country affected? In many cases, violence, unrest or natural disasters are confined to a particular region while the rest of the country is still safe and welcoming to tourists. For example, in recent years the U.K. has cautioned visitors against traveling in Gulf Coast states of the U.S. during hurricane season. And while Mexico's recent struggles with violence are well publicized, government warnings apply only to select states; many popular tourist destinations such as the Mayan Riviera have remained safe.
While your well-being always comes first, keep in mind that the fallout from an isolated act of violence can affect an entire country's tourist industry -- and have a disproportionate effect on the economy of a developing nation.
2. What's the danger? For travel advisories dealing with violence or terrorism, pay attention to what kind of attacks are taking place and who the targets are. Assaults that specifically pinpoint foreign tourists should raise a bigger red flag than civil unrest among locals. If violence generally happens away from primary tourist locations, there may be less risk for visitors.
3. How long ago was the warning posted, and when was it last updated? If you're looking at a warning that's more than a few months old, it may be worth doing a little research to check the current situation on the ground and see if there's been any improvement. The websites of international newspapers are often a good source of accurate and up-to-date information. Searching Google News or Twitter can help you find these.
4. Is the warning corroborated by other governments? To get a fuller story on what's happening in a particular country, check travel warnings from multiple sources (see our links below). Critics have speculated that some advisories are unduly influenced by politics, so checking a U.S. advisory against a Canadian or an Australian one can give you a fresh perspective -- or confirm that a threat is cause for a change in your travel plans.
5. Is there a safety net? Find out whether your home country has an embassy or consulate in the place you want to visit, and make sure it's fully staffed and functioning. If the worst happens, you don't want to be stranded in a foreign country without an embassy to help with emergency evacuation or to get you in contact with family and friends at home.
6. Is travel insurance an option? Keep in mind that travel insurance may not cover you in all countries or circumstances. According to TripInsuranceStore.com, most policies do not cover acts of war, riots or civil disorder. Other exclusions apply too, so read your policy carefully before purchasing.
What if I Decide to Go Anyway?
Each year, many tourists choose to visit certain countries despite their government's warnings. If you decide to do the same, consider taking the following safety precautions.
1. Register yourself. Let your government know when and where you will be traveling so that you can be reached in an emergency. U.S. citizens can register themselves here; Canadians can do so here. Other countries have similar programs.
2. Check in. Leave a copy of your itinerary with family or friends at home so that they know where you're supposed to be and when. Stay in touch on a regular basis by email, phone or Skype.
3. Keep an eye on the news. It can be tempting to take a complete break from the world when you're on vacation, but if you're in a place where conditions are unstable, you'll want to keep yourself posted on what's happening by getting online, watching the news in your hotel room or picking up a local newspaper.
4. Be prepared. Have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Find your home country's embassy or consulate in the area you'll be visiting and carry its contact details with you at all times. But be aware of what the embassy -- and your home government -- can and cannot do. (For example, if you're injured, the State Department can help get you back to the U.S., but you or your relatives will have to foot the bill.)
5. Protect yourself. Purchase a travel insurance policy after reading carefully to see what is and isn't covered. Consider getting a policy with a "cancel for any reason" option so you can back out of your trip without penalty if you feel uneasy. Check out Money Safety Tips for Travelers to help shield yourself against crime. Finally, do your research; read up on the political or cultural situation of the area you're visiting and know exactly which threats you might face. For more information, see How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel.
Where to Find Travel Warnings
Below are a few governments offering travel advisories in English. (Keep in mind that the State Department does not offer information about U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, so you'll need to turn to foreign governments for any advisories about these destinations.)
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--written by Sarah Schlichter