Don’t Go There: The Numbers Behind Travel Advisories

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory alert for American citizens in the Middle East and North Africa. Citing reports of suspected terrorist attacks that “al-Qa’ida and affilate organizations” plan to carry out in the coming weeks, the Bureau of Consular Affairs is urging all U.S. passport-holders in the region to return home or go elsewhere until the end of August. The threat also prompted the U.S. government to close 22 embassies throughout the Middle East; some have since reopened, but the alert will remain in effect until Aug. 31.

The news came as a disconcerting surprise to most. According to Marketplace.org, the number of U.S. citizens that visited the Middle East in 2013 prior to the travel warning was 6 percent higher than the previous year. Egypt was particularly fruitful, having generated more than $4 billion in revenue from the 6 million tourists who traveled to the country between January and June of this year. Other countries in the region that attract their fair share of tourists, such as Israel, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, are also expecting an economic windfall thanks to the reduced number of visitors. Others half-expected such a measure might be taken with or without an explicit terrorist threat, pointing to last year’s Sept. 11 siege on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

However, it should be noted that the current list of State Department advisories is not limited to the Middle East and North Africa, nor are they solely issued on the basis of terrorist threats. The warning issued in Colombia, for instance, is primarily based on widespread kidnappings that plagued the country for decades; although these incidents have largely subsided since 2000, the State Department notes that “it is U.S. policy not to make concessions to or strike deals with kidnappers”. In North Korea, American travelers are warned to proceed with caution when entering the country with certain items. “If you bring electronic media, including USB drives, CD-ROMs, DVDs, or laptops, into North Korea,” the warning reads, “you must assume that North Korean authorities will review the information on those devices.”

Moreover, some travel warnings only apply to a particular region or area of the country. In Philippines, for instance, a warning has been in effect since July 5 for those who plan to visit the Sulu Archipelago. The islands, particularly Mindanao, have seen increased terrorist activity in recent years, but other areas of the country (including Cebu, Boracay, and other tourist hotspots) are considered low-alert. American visitors to Mexico are urged to stay far away from places like Juarez, where more than 4,000 homicides have been committed since 2010, as well as Mexicali, Northern Baja, and other known hubs for drug cartel activity; on the bright side, no warnings have been issued for Mexico City, Yucatan, or most of the popular resort destinations that attract millions of U.S. tourists every year (with the exception of Acapulco, where about 320 murders occurred in 2012 alone). And while the State Department urges American travelers in Israel to avoid buses and crowded marketplaces, the country’s travel warning primarily applies to the Gaza Strip, a region that represents less than 2 percent of Israel’s total geographic area.

These ‘isolated’ warnings raise an important question: why aren’t there more of them? Look at Brazil. According to a 2012 report from Business Insider, 14 of the world’s 50 most violent cities are located in Brazil; they combined for more than 17,000 homicides in 2011 — and notably, neither Rio de Janeiro nor Sao Paulo made the list. Now consider that eight of the cities are located on Brazil’s north-central coastline; shouldn’t this region earn the same dubious recognition as the Gaza Strip or Sulu Archipelago? Then there’s South Africa; four cities from that country made the Business Insider list, and they’re all popular tourist destinations: Johannesburg (#50), Durban (#49), Port Elizabeth (#41) and Cape Town (#34). Shouldn’t more than 4,000 combined murders in four of South Africa’s largest cities earn that country some sort of alert? Several cities throughout Latin America (including four in Colombia, four in Venezuela, and a dozen in Mexico) also made the list, as did three U.S. metro areas (Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans) and Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.

Why is the U.S. government ignoring these places? Well, they’re not ― not exactly. The State Department publishes specific reports for every country in the world, in which particularly violent cities and regions are given their due attention. But it’s interesting to note that full-fledged travel warnings are typically issued in conjunction with some sort of organized terrorist or multinational criminal threat ― not, say, the 585 rapes and more than 5,000 violent incidents against women that took place in Delhi in 2012 alone or the 27-percent increase in street crime reported in Moscow last year.

The take-away here is that traveling anywhere internationally (or in the U.S., for that matter) poses potential risks to your health and safety. There are obvious rules-of-thumb to follow: don’t travel alone after dark, don’t drink too much in public, watch out for non-uniformed police officers who “want to have a word” with you. And by no means do official travel warnings necessarily imply that you are forbidden from traveling to flagged countries. But the State Department wouldn’t be doing its job to the fullest extent if they didn’t inform us of potential dangers ― such as full-scale terrorist threats ― around the world, and urge us to proceed with extreme caution if we’re still determined to visit certain places.

Please travel safe ― and by all means, visit the official U.S. State Department website for more information about wherever you plan to go.

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