Travel Advisories: Fear-Mongering, Paranoia, or Wisdom?

We are currently in a VERY small town on a very small island in a very big lake in Guatemala. I was curious about the police helicopters continually visiting one of the areas on the lake shore and the apparent plethora of police vehicles roaming the few streets and struck up conversation with a business owner. Little did I know he was a very sour American who had opened his place 6 months ago. To be fair, though, he has reportedly been losing a significant amount of business due to the apparent “state of emergency” the area has been under for almost 7 weeks.  I was stunned! I had neither seen nor heard of any travel advisories for this specific region, but I had wondered why it seemed so many hotels in the area are almost empty. Per my grumpy friend, tour groups are not allowed to come to the area because of the current “emergency.”  This rather extreme situation was allegedly created when a group of Mexican drug dealers (narcotraficantes) attacked a nearby group of similarly engaged persons on a farm outside of town.  He states the local government has told him that the presence of so many police is to comfort the few tourists who are visiting the area.

travel advisories

This situation got me thinking.  I’ve seen all too many times where travel advisories have really been. . . well, exaggerated.  In 2005 I went to Paris during the student demonstrations.  If you believed the media, the whole city was on fire.  More than once I got concerned emails from friends back home who had seen the terrible riots and were worried for my safety.  I hadn’t seen or heard anything and through some checking around discovered the “riots” had involved a single solitary block in the vast city.  One time I did cross the street and go out of an area because I saw 40+ police vans descend on an area, but other than that there was no evidence of any major issue going on.  During the recent protests in Cairo, it seemed as if the whole country was one huge danger zone; however, most of the protests were occurring in a small section of downtown.

During and before our trip to Mexico, I had many people who were very concerned.  The way the media has handled reporting of the drug-related violence in parts of Mexico (mostly near its borders with the US and mostly between government and narcotraficantes) has led to a massive decrease in tourism to that country which is extremely sad to me, and I wish more people could hear the stories from locals about how their whole lives have been greatly impacted by this.

travel advisories

Before going to Guatemala, I read the US State Department’s page on the country, and I found the following within several paragraphs of really scary warnings:

Since December 2008, 22 murders of American citizens have been reported in Guatemala, including eight in 2008, eight in 2009 and six in 2010.

I know people who while reading those statistics would become quite panicked.  Out of curiosity I looked at the 2010 crime statistics for the city I used to live near, a place known for relative safety. There were 33 murders last year alone.  In America’s capital you have a 1 in 75 chance of being the victim of a violent crime.  So which location is safer?

travel advisories

Please don’t think I’m advocating throwing all caution to the wind and saying screw the advisories. What I am saying, though, is like with anything else you should inform yourself and be practical. Realize that the American media is a business and their job is to get you to buy that newspaper, subscribe to their site, and/or keep you from changing the channel during their report.  Part of a government’s job, without getting political here, is to guard and care for its citizens.  So look further.  In this day and age of social media and the incredible shrinkage of the world brought on by the Internet, it is fairly easy to find people with firsthand experience of an area, current residents, etc. Dig a little deeper. Use basic common sense.

If we avoid every place that has received negative news attention, has scary numbers, and so, there would be very few places we could go on the earth. And if you consider that statistically speaking the absolute most dangerous place for people is in their own homes, really you’re safer traveling than sitting on the couch anyway.

What is a place you “shouldn’t” have gone to but did and were pleasantly surprised?

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46 Comments

  1. On a cycle tour of Ecuador a few years ago, every time we stopped cycling for the night we were warned not to go any further as there were bandits in the hills. We never came across any bandits and we did cycle rather a lot of hills so you can’t always believe the locals. Our preferred way of deciding whether or not to proceed in places said to be dangerous is to get as much information as we can then make a decision based on a mix of knowledge, instinct and personal experience.
    We are currently planning a summer in South Africa and Malawi and if we believed all the scare stories we’ve been told we’d have pulled out ages ago but I’m pretty sure we’ll be a lot more cautious in South Africa than if we were travelling in Europe. Quite often common sense is the key.

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    • Common sense is definitely a prized possession, as is trusting your instincts. Very true about not being able to 100% trust information from the locals either. Some are very well meaning, and some are also based on their desire to keep your business there.

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  2. Hi Talon,

    I am so glad you wrote this! We are currently in Mexico (our first time) and before we left we had so many people saying things like “be careful” or “keep your eyes open” and even “I dont know if id go there”. Most of these people, if not all of them, hadnt even been to Mexico but seemed to know what they were talking about.

    So of course we arrived in Mexico feeling a little unsure and questioning ourselves on our decision to come here.

    I have no idea why people give Mexico such a hard time!! We have been here for 2 weeks and while we are staying in ‘touristy’ areas, we have hired a car and explored many of the ‘non-touristy’ areas. And I gotta say I LOVE MEXICO!

    The place is full of color, has many beautiful beaches and the people – Some of the friendliest yet!

    Why do people insist on judging a country before they even go there for themselves. And yes, I understand that there are some bad people in Mexico, but there are bad people everywhere!! We felt more unsafe in some parts of our US road trip than we have in Mexico. In fact, we’ve not once felt unsafe in Mexico.

    Unfortunately we live in a world that has some bad people in it but its such a small percentage and every country has them so I dont understand why people put so much focus on it!

    I used to get daily alerts from an advisory telling me which countries were unsafe for travel. I opted out from those emails because most of the time it was for reason that would not affect us in the slightest (like your story above).

    I am not saying people should ignore warnings, of course not, but perhaps look at them with open eyes and dont judge a whole nation on it.

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    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying Mexico. It is such a beautiful country with such beautiful people in it. It makes me sad that the country is suffering because of these histrionic advisories. It always strikes me weird because we don’t say Oh my! There was a shooting in NYC, don’t go to the US!

      I follow the UK’s travel advisories in Twitter. They seem to be reliable and based less on hysteria.

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  3. Thanks for this post! I feel like travel advisories would be so much more useful if they were practical and coming from a place of informing rather than scaring. I actually DO want to know if there is a danger in a place I am headed towards but the government websites are so over the top that I find I can’t rely on them. I have been to many places that were on the “danger list” and have yet to have any serious problems. After 4 trips to India, and various other ones to Jordan, Egypt, Nepal, Mexico etc etc, I have gotten very used to people telling me that I am making “dangerous” travel decisions. And yet I regret NONE of my travel choices! I stay safe by using common sense, remaining aware of my surroundings, and paying attention to what *locals* are saying about what’s going on. (Even then I sometimes take it with a grain of salt because lots of people will tell a foreigner to skip an activity, food, or experience if they think said foreigner won’t like it or can’t handle it 😉 The only time I have run into any problems? When I has several things stolen out of my luggage by an AIRLINE in Egypt! I wish people had more faith in their own abilities to use common sense and stay aware. Once you are in a place, your gut knows when something feels off. You don’t really need a website to tell you. Actually…. your gut knows when something is off it has been trained and trusted to do just that. Maybe we should be teaching more people to trust their guts??

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    • If more people relied on their gut and common sense for most things in life, we would all be better off, no? 🙂

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  4. I unfortunately fell victim to the negative news of going to Jordan that I actually won with a tour group. Not only was that apart of it but my family said because my last name is Jewish that I shouldn’t go. Everything with Syria had just started and refugees were coming into Jordan. I also had a friend of mine who is Jordanian and she told me not to go. I started second guessing and canceled the trip. I really wanted to go. I see a lot of other travel blogs of people going to Jordan and they have a great time and did not have any problems. I’m not too bummed though, as I will be starting my travel journey in May 2013, I have plenty of time to go there and visit.

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    • That must’ve been a bit of a heart break! But I’m so glad you got past that fear and will be able to go. I’ve heard so many wonderful thing about Jordan. I’m excited to go there as well.

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    • Thanks! Never thought about that. Hmmm

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  5. “Travel Advisories” can be “funny” at times and by funny, I mean ridiculous..

    Great article and amazing pictures.

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  6. I do feel like the travel advisories are always a bit over the top, but I guess that’s necessary sometimes. I certainly know that none of the warnings I got while in Korea ever seemed worthwhile.

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    • I just wish they could temper them a bit more.

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  7. Before I came to Nicaragua, I headr lots of people talking about how dangerous it is. Not surprisingly, just the people who haven´t been here were talking like that. As I spend more than 10 days in a quiet beach town, I can only recommend the place, it´s quite safe. Of course in all touristic places you have to be careful, where there are tourists, there might be people interested in their eletronic devices and wallets, right?

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    • So true. And really that could apply to anywhere in the world.

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  8. When we went to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula last year our family, friends, and co-workers were shocked that we would dare go to Mexico. They thought we would all be kidnapped and killed. It’s funny the amount of fear that people get from just watching the news. 

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    • It sure is. Sadly it’s the locals who pay the price for that.

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  9. Oh gads – don’t even get me started on that one! Suffice it to say that I lived in a small Honduran town during a massive “raid” by the Sandinistas – apparently my town was overrun by Sandinistas shooting at everything that moved. Nothing happened at all – nothing.

    I hate to be jaded, but I’ve been overseas enough to learn that 90% of the warnings put out by the US government are out there for political reasons. (Yes, I had the US embassador to Ethiopia call a town meeting for all expats in the country and beg us to stay even though the government had issued a warning – it was political). If you really want to know what’s going on, check out the Canadian and British warnings – they are more accurate by far.

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    • Excellent points. I also agree about the US warnings. I follow the UK’s department on Twitter and pay a little more attention to theirs. They tend to be less reactionary.

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  10. We travel as a family, despite travel advisories, to a small, quiet fishing village, Puerto Penasco (Rocky Pointe) on the sea in Mexico a couple times a year and have done so forever (just went a few weeks ago and everyone thought we were nuts for going). It is an adorable town with wonderful people who are hurting economically to begin with, but now more so than ever since no one visits anymore.  So sad.  Also, my 15 year old son is spending this summer in Panama living with a host family, speaking only Spanish, working hard, meeting new friends, learning about Panamanian culture, and being extremely humbled by the experience. 

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  11. Don’t know if you have read many of my recent posts, but one thing that I know I unconsciously mention a lot is our U.S. “sensationalist” media.  60 minute broadcast, 20 minutes of commercials, 32 minutes for killing, hate crimes, warnings, war, etc, 2 minutes for sports, 2 minutes for weather, 2 minutes for traffic and one story, at the very end, that has an uplifting message. 

    Rinse and repeat every hour.

    1/30th of the nightly news typically has anything positive to say.

    I guess I just look at it this way, if you heard this “coming up on your 6:00pm nightly news, stories of cats rescued from trees, dogs playing with each other, world peace achieved, cancer cured, etc” nobody would tune in.  Media WANTS to cover killings, murders, rapes, war, etc.  

    Juliet and I now choose to not watch the news.  If we don’t hear about something on Twitter or Facebook, we don’t really care.

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    • And the other side of that coin is if people didn’t tune in to watch the bad stuff, they’d have to find something else to report.

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  12. We travel as a family, despite travel advisories, to a small, quiet fishing village, Puerto Penasco (Rocky Pointe) on the sea in Mexico a couple times a year and have done so forever (just went a few weeks ago and everyone thought we were nuts for going). It is an adorable town with wonderful people who are hurting economically to begin with, but now more so than ever since no one visits anymore.  So sad.  Also, my 15 year old son is spending this summer in Panama living with a host family, speaking only Spanish, working hard, meeting new friends, learning about Panamanian culture, and being extremely humbled by the experience.  There are warnings about Panama for sure.  There are risks with everything, every day.  I think anywhere you go (shit, I live in a “nice” neighborhood yet my home has been broken into TWICE), you have things that can happen.  You just have to be educated and use your head. 

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    • I love your comment about your home being broken into twice. Earlier today I saw a post by someone who was bemoaning that something had been stolen and felt it was a blight on the whole country they were visiting. I don’t know why it is people forget this stuff happens in their home country as well.

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  13. Great post…it’s something I’ve thought about many times. I’ve been to Syria and Lebanon (went last summer), which had their share of warnings, and to South Africa. And I’ve spent time in Guatemala. I think that each place presents a unique scenario and that certainly many of the warnings are exaggerated by state department travel advisories. Having said this, I think that it’s very important to get information from multiple sources and then follow your gut feeling. And it sounds like that’s what you do (and what many of ‘us’ do.)

    Of the four locations I mentioned, I will say this….The Middle East was the safest. And South Africa definitely had some ‘issues’. I recall that quite a few people I’d met had been robbed or knew someone who had been. Even one of the hostel workers in Capetown was mugged on her way home one night. Because of this, I took their advice (and that of the people at the hostel) to avoid certain streets. The challenge in S Africa, however, was that anything could and did happen anywhere. Good neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods, well-guarded places, etc. So that made safety considerations a  little bit different. It didn’t stop me from going or from enjoying myself, of course. But I was extra careful; I took taxis at night and always kept my money well-hidden (in the Middle East, I didn’t have to do that as much).

    While I don’t let the warnings keep me away from a place I really want to visit, I do keep in mind that some places may in fact be (relatively) more dangerous than others. (I don’t look at the stats too closely, but if I did, I’d look at them in the context of overall population and what’s behind the crime–eg, violent robbery in a place with a poor economy and victim type. I think that a traveler is probably more likely to be victimized in a poor country where they’re seen as wealthy vs in a wealthy country.) Like many travelers, I believe that ‘anything can happen anywhere’, etc, but I think that some things are more likely to happen in some places vs others. At the same time, I think that one should go nearly anywhere they’re compelled to (and do thorough research and use common sense). I would avoid active war zones, of course. 🙂

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    • Couldn’t agree more! Yesterday we went to an area that has some strong warnings about it. We went during the day when it’s known to be safer, and I kept my wits about me. When I saw some vehicles exhibiting suspicious behavior, I took an appropriate response which not only could help keep us safe but also lets them know we aren’t an easy target.

      I have heard that about South Africa. As of yet I’m undecided about going there, not just because of the safety concerns, though.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and insight. I hope more people take a well-thought approach to traveling rather than knee-jerk responses.

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  14. This is SO true!

    I remember being in Mallorca a few years ago when a car bomb went off in the centre of town. We didn’t realise it had happened until we saw all the english newspapers saying that british hollidaymakers on the island were distraught and panicked and rushing back home ASAP, and that it was really unsafe at the moment. Couldn’t have been further from the truth!

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  15. If I had listened to the travel advisories on Indonesia in 2001 I never would have gotten married.  I agree that it’s good to be informed but you also have to use some common sense.  Bad things can happen anywhere in the world.  Sure some areas are more dangerous than others but the vast majority of places are just as safe as any city in the US.  I’ve been to Indonesia now on several occasions and never once have I felt unsafe or unwelcome. But everyone has their own level of risk they are willing to accept.

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    • Definitely. Pay attention is one of the biggest things people can do. I see some tourists walking around in more risky areas with their heads in the clouds or engaging in activity that is simply asking for trouble almost anywhere! One woman the other day was being so clueless with her handbag I was tempted to swipe it just to show her what an idiot she was. LOL

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      • LOL! Sounds like a great business model.  A travel security expert who shows you in real time what a target you can be.  “That’ll be $20 for the information and to get your purse back.”

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        • Hmmm. May be an interesting way to earn money for my travels. LOL

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  16. I visited this town you hint about recently (I can tell from the second photograph exactly where you are / were). I was there in February. I spent three nights in total – never any issue. I felt it was safe just like the rest of Guatemala. Heck, I left my iPhone in a bar and returned an hour later to pick it up from the waitress in Guatemala. I’m not sure that would happen in many countries.

    But, this post is more about the warnings. And you specifically mention a few examples including Mexico. I often head south of the border, and often write about the positive aspects of my travels. Glad to learn you went there with your son to start your adventure. And very glad you found it as I do every time – safe and magical.

    stay adventurous, Craig

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    • Yeah, not a lot of places like that in Guatemala. J We enjoy Flores, and the thought that anyone would feel unsafe here just blows me away. Now, in nearby Santa Elena? Yeah, I can see some discomfort in some parts of that town, and I definitely would not walk around most of that area at night, but I’ve also been to those places in the US.

      We totally love Mexico, and it’s big on our list of places we would return to visit as well as live.

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  17. Great post. I think it’s always a good idea to pay attention to travel advisories, but not to treat them like a be all and end all. As depressing as it sounds I think negative news tends to stick in people’s minds moreso than anything positive. I went to Mexico, just to Cancun, but even still I had friends, and family who were sure I’d get shot or kidnapped by the drug cartel. Nothing happened, and I ended loving Mexico. I’d go back again. 

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    • Mexico is a great place, and I’ve felt safer in most of Mexico than in many parts of the US. It is so easy to get sucked into the black headlines!

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    • “Hi, I’m Barak Obama and I want to spread YOUR wealth around so that YOU can take care of MY Aunt who lives in the slums and my brother who lives in a hut!”I would rather take care of them with my “wealth” than contribute to Cindy McCain’s drug addiction. (Cindy McCain being a metaphor for all greedy rich people, who didn’t get their wealth the old fashon way.granny, tnat tape was from the “Kevin Ross” blog talk show. jody, why are you even trying to give a lucid argument to anon.?

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  18. I think many Americans would be surprised to know that some Europeans won’t travel there because of all the reports of violence we read.  It seems that every day there is a shooter at a school or a shopping mall.  It seems much more consistent than, say a student riot in France, which lasts a few days.  It’s a very odd contradiction in the American psyche I think, that there is, in general, it seems so much fear of travel, and yet an unwillingness to admit the degree of violence on the doorstep.  Of course Hollywood doesn’t exactly help to diminish this image either.  

    The press is to blame for a lot of misinformation in modern life, including this.So far as travel advisories go I think, that as with many things, they have to provide for the lowest common denominator.  They have to spell it out carefully to make sure people understand, and to do that they have to assume that everyone is an idiot and can’t figure out things for themselves.

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    • Excellent points! Part of the American culture seems to pretend “We’re invincible & the best” so they turn closed eyes and ears to problems on our doorstep.

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  19. Great post! When we told family and friends we were going to Leh which is located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, we got the same reaction from some: “It’s dangerous in Kashmir, you shouldn’t go”! What comforted us was that the travel advisory specifically excluded Ladakh plus the numerous forum posts from people who just came from from Leh, so we felt rather safe going there. However, I do know a few people that have decided against visiting Ladakh just because it IS located within Jammu and Kashmir. I do hope that travelers and tourists would rely not only on media but also from other sources such as blogs, forums and social network to learn more about a place.

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    • Totally agree! There is a lot of information out there now so one can be
      better informed.

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  20. Like you, I was in Paris in November 2005.  I definitely followed what was going on with the riots but honestly never noticed even a slight hint of trouble.  I think the government and media create more fear than is really necessary.  But they prefer to be cautious and I do understand that.  it doesn’t mean that people need to believe the worst in everything they read.

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  21. We’re currently planning a trip to Israel and Jordan. When I tell people this, it’s always met with “Oh, I would never go there! It’s too dangerous!” When I respond by saying that we’re not planning on hanging out in the West Bank or Gaza, the response doesn’t change. It’s amazing how much the media influences perceptions of a place.

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    • It’s really kind of scary. If the media can do that about travel, what other areas do they have so much power in?

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