Planning your spring and summer travels? Bombings, shootings and sexual assault have been reported in Mexico, where the murder total hit an all-time record 29,000 in 2017. This year, London’s murder count surpassed New York’s. State Department Advisories on travel to many countries abound, from North Korea and Syria (both listed as “Do Not Travel”) to the Dominican Republic (“Exercise Increased Caution” due to crime) and Turkey (“Reconsider travel to Turkey due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.”)
A quick look at the US State Department map of travel advisories could definitely set off alarm bells. Only a minority of nations would fit the State Department’s lowest level warning, Exercise Normal Precaution, including (among others) the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the Scandinavian countries. Much of the rest of the world is mapped out in shades of yellow, orange and the dread red, indicating no-go (Do Not Travel) countries.
But before shredding your passport and chaining oneself to the couch or refrigerator, it’s important to have some perspective. In March, my family traveled from Los Angeles to Belize, where we stayed inland in San Ignacio and near the ocean in Ambergris Caye. We also made a day trip from San Ignacio to the Mayan ruins in Tikal National Park in Guatemala, on a small guided trip through Viator.
It turns out that we were visiting two of the five countries boasting the highest murder rates in the world., based on homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year. They are Guatemala, 39.9, El Salvador, 41.2, Belize, 44.7, and Venezuela, 53.7. The leader, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is Honduras, which has an unparalleled 90.4 murder rate.
While Belize, like many areas, has occasional crimes against tourists, our family felt safe there, walking or golf-carting to markets, restaurants, beaches, boat landings and bars. Tikal, too, felt safe, although seeing the Guatemalan narcoterrorism paramilitary police in their black pick-up trucks was a bit unnerving. In fact, the only crime we fell victim to was the disappearance of my wife’s sunglasses from a tray at the TSA checkpoint at Houston George Bush Airport.
Looking at the world through the State Department travel advisory map, Belize, like nearby Mexico, is a yellow “Exercise Increased Caution” area. (Although disturbingly, certain parts of Mexico, including once-popular tourist destinations Mazatlan and Acapulco, are marked in red for “Do Not Travel.”) Guatemala was an orange “Reconsider Travel.” Nearby Honduras was orange with lines for “Reconsider Travel – Contains Areas with Higher Security Risk.” Outright “Do Not Travel” advisories are for eleven countries: Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Do Not Travel, of course, is essentially an advisory, not an outright ban, which would be difficult to enforce. The State Department says Level 4 – Do Not Travel “is the highest advisory level due to a greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance.”
And even a ‘ban’ doesn’t’ necessarily mean don’t go. For example, the embargo on travel to Cuba (colored orange on the map, for “Reconsider Travel”), is still in place. Yet US airlines are flying there, and Americans can legally travel there under twelve fairly broad categories such as visiting family, education and cultural exchange, etc.
While the United States has a much lower murder rate (4.9 per 100,000) than many other countries, there are exceptions. According to USA Today, Baltimore is the US big city with the highest per capita murder rate, with nearly 56 murders per 100,000 people, meaning it would have the world’s second-highest murder rate if it were a country. Frequent tourist destination New Orleans was second, with 40.4 murders per 100,000 despite a 16% drop in the murder rate from the previous year.
Taking some basic precautions will reduce one’s possibility of being victimized. Recommendations from the US State Department include:
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Do not physically resist any robbery attempt.
- Do not display signs of wealth, such as wearing expensive watches or jewelry.
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive Alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- U.S. citizens who travel abroad should always have a contingency plan for emergency situations. Review the Traveler’s Checklist.
The world is out there, and taking normal precautions will help you enjoy it safely.
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