Travel warnings, which the State Department has been making public to American travelers since 1978 and which cover everything from civil unrest to health concerns, originate with the U.S. embassy or consulates of a specific country. Then the Bureau of Consular Affairs—and, occasionally, other agencies—weighs in, with the final decision coming from the office of the Undersecretary of State. The State Department subsequently revisits the warnings, usually every six months.
Some of the 27 countries with travel warnings at press time are no-brainers (Iraq, Somalia), but when it comes to others (Syria, Nepal), it’s sometimes necessary to read between the lines. Though you won’t be breaking any laws by visiting countries with warnings in effect, do take them seriously. "We don’t, as a government, tell Americans that they can’t travel somewhere," says Michele Bond, deputy assistant secretary of state for Overseas Citizens Services. Even if you decide to travel to a country despite a travel warning, the State Department will be on your side in the event of trouble: "We are going to respond whether there is a travel warning in place or not," she explains. She also encourages people, especially those traveling to higher-risk destinations, to register their itineraries on travel.state.gov.
Just because the State Department has issued a travel warning for a country, it doesn’t necessarily mean the place is one great big danger zone. Other countries’ foreign offices and ministries are often clearer about the nature of the dangers: the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office provides separate lists for countries it considers unsafe altogether, and those it deems unsafe only in certain regions.
Comparing State Department assessments with those of other governments will help broaden your view. But according to Kelly McCann, president of Kroll’s Security Group, all official advisories come with baggage, since they "have to be sensitive to the foreign policy and goals" of a particular government.
What exactly does that mean?Many travel experts suspect that politics play a role in State Department assessments, even though Bond says that’s not the case. "We put out an honest statement. What another government wants us to say is not relevant," she insists. But some Middle East tour operators question why, for example, a 2006 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus—quickly subdued and with minimal fatalities—justifies a long-standing travel warning for Syria (it’s the only incident of terrorist activity cited in the warning) when the 2005 bombings of London’s public transportation system didn’t result in one for the U.K.
Some travel consultants believe that since the State Department is a government agency, its warnings will always be alarmist; when it comes to assessing a country’s safety, many top operators rely on other sources. Local contacts and newsletters from private security firms such as iJet and ASI Group, they claim, provide more-comprehensive information and don’t needlessly scare off travelers. "You have to warn people, but occasionally there’s overkill," says Los Angeles–based travel agent Sandee Litwin, who still recommends Bali to honeymooners despite the travel warning for Indonesia, in effect since 2000. Malaka Hilton, the owner of Admiral Travel Gallery in Sarasota, Florida, and an organizer of Middle East trips, concurs. "The State Department has to do its job, but sometimes people get too scared."
She adds that often the best safety measure is some research in advance of travel, while McCann recommends creating a mental map of a city’s safe neighborhoods before setting foot in it, and becoming familiar with local issues such as potential strikes or common petty crimes (information provided in Consular Information Sheets, also available at travel.state.gov).