The World's Most Dangerous Countries
If tomorrow morning Africa and the Middle East simply vanished, you have to wonder what would happen to the State Department functionaries who write the travel warnings at travel.state.gov. The poor people would have little to do all day. Of the 28 travel warnings issued in May, 12 were for African nations and 7 were for countries in the Middle East.
You won’t be surprised by some of the countries on the list—or the reasons for the warnings. We’re talking about Al-Qaeda terrorists in Lebanon, suicide car-bombings in Algeria, and attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. Sudan is noted for its assassinations of two U.S. Embassy staffers and the conflict in Darfur. Political unrest, rebel roadblocks, street crime—the warnings are as plentiful as they are disturbing.
The State Department posts travel warnings when “protracted conditions” make a country dangerous, according to Michelle Bernier-Toth, director of the department’s Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management. “The whole purpose is to make sure people have enough information to plan their travels overseas.”
What you may not know is that many of these countries, despite their failings, market themselves aggressively as tourist destinations. True, they don’t do much of that salesmanship in the United States. But elsewhere, at travel trade shows and in glossy brochures, many of these dangerous—and perhaps not-so-dangerous—places celebrate their attractions, ignore their shortcomings, and generally try to impress travel agents, tour operators, travel writers, and average vacationers.
At the 2009 ITB travel show in Berlin, for instance, the country of Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula, had a booth where promoters were playing traditional music and offering complimentary maps showing tourist highlights (the capital city of Sana’a, for example, is a UNESCO World Heritage site). What the promoters neglected to mention was the violence in 2008 directed at the U.S. Embassy and tourists.
Of course, not all the countries on the State Department warning list are trying to be the next Bali or St. Bart’s. Poor little Burundi is still mopping up from its late civil war, for instance. The Central African Republic has its hands full with a nasty little rebellion in the north, not to mention a plethora of highway bandits on the Berberati-Carnot-Baoro-Bouar-Bozoum road. Somalia is better known for pirate ships than cruise ships.
Yet plenty of countries are trying to cash in on the profits—and good public relations—that tourism can provide. But just because a country is listed by the State Department doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s hazardous to your health. You’re not likely to be mugged in Eritrea, murdered in Iran, or carjacked in Uzbekistan. And there can be plenty of upsides to visiting a “dangerous” country: Eritrea, for one, has everything from Art Deco buildings to a scenic railroad and a gorgeous coastline.
So do these places deserve your business, or merely a fleeting glimpse of your rapidly disappearing backside? It’s not always an easy call. The State Department warnings can be as commerce-inhibiting as a big-time critic’s pan of an overhyped Broadway turkey. On the other hand, if your safety is at risk, those travel warnings could save your life.
To go or not to go? That’s the question.
The Allure: For decades, visitors have trekked in the Karakoram range, hunted wild boar, climbed the rock faces in the Hindu Kush, and investigated the architectural antiquities of the Indus Valley.
The Warning: The travel warning recommends avoiding all nonessential travel due to terrorist activity. Al-Qaeda and Taliban presence is potentially dangerous to Americans in particular. In 2008 alone, more than 60 suicide bombings killed more than 1,000 people. Pakistan’s armed forces are fighting militants in the North-West Frontier and elsewhere. Many other areas are closed to non-Pakistanis.
Go or No? The State Department warning is apt: Don’t plan a trip, at least for now. Still, the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation in Islamabad can provide a list of tour operators.
The Allure: Dip your toes into the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile, choose one hump or two at the camel market in Khartoum, and visit the Meroë pyramids.
The Warning: The ongoing slaughter and starvation in Darfur and the recent indictment of Sudan’s president for war crimes give a clue to what you can expect here. In January 2008, two American Embassy employees were assassinated while driving in Khartoum. In recent years, Americans and Europeans have been victims of robberies and carjackings. The State Department warns against all travel to Sudan.
Go or No? Seriously?(Nevertheless, all the danger isn’t stopping Raidan Travel & Tours in Omdurman from operating.)
The Warning: As a result of the five-day war following Russia’s invasion in August 2008, numerous unexploded shells remain in the former war zone around Gori. U.S. citizens are advised against traveling to the separatist region of South Ossetia and to remain in close contact with the U.S. Embassy. Political demonstrations are potentially violent.
Go or No? If Russian-Georgian relations improve (or at least if Russian tanks aren’t gunning their engines at the border), a trip is definitely an option. To go, contact Georgica Travel, a Tbilisi-based tour operator.
The Allure: Sightseeing highlights include the ancient temples of Baalbek, the eighth-century Umayyad ruins of Anjar, and the wineries in the Bekáa Valley.
The Warning: Lebanon occupies the hot seat between Israel and Syria, and the State Department urges Americans to avoid all travel here. Hezbollah militants stage frequent roadblocks, and violence in Tripoli has claimed more than 30 lives since August 2008. Al-Qaeda is present in the country. Land mines and unexploded ordnance are rife in the south. The U.S. Embassy can’t promise you assistance if you need to be evacuated.
Go or No? Beirut’s comeback as the Paris of the Middle East was crippled by the 2006 war with Israel. We’ll postpone a visit until it once again becomes a safe, cosmopolitan destination, along with the rest of the country. If you feel differently, though, you can go with the Beirut company Wild Discovery.
The Allure: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will let you visit the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, the Monument to Party Foundation, and the captured USS Pueblo (though plenty of spots are, of course, off-limits). Plus, you can sleep in the traditional style (on the floor) at Kaesong’s Folk Hotel.
The Warning: Travelers enter and return via China, so two visas are required. Crime is rare, but that doesn’t mean you’re free to do as you choose. Foreigners’ movements and conversations are monitored, particularly for religious and political activity, and there’s no U.S. diplomatic presence. The DPRK is not on the State Department warning list, but the U.S. has imposed trade sanctions.
The Allure: Syria has one of the most important mosques in Islam, the Umayyad Mosque. You can also visit bedouin camps in the desert and Roman ruins at the Palmyra oasis.
The Warning: For more than 30 years, the United States has labeled Syria a state sponsor of terrorism. The past decade alone has seen car bombs, assassinations, an attack on the U.S. Embassy, and violent anti-Western demonstrations.
Go or No? Not for the foreseeable future. Yet those with a sense of adventure can travel with Damascus-based Nawafir Travel & Tours.
The Allure: Visit the old city of Sana’a, the capital—a UNESCO World Heritage site—then head out to see bizarre and beautiful flora on the offshore island of Socotra. Elsewhere, you’ll find palaces and vineyards.
The Warning: The State Department recommends that American citizens defer nonessential travel to Yemen. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a was attacked in September 2008, leaving an embassy guard dead. A convoy of tourists was attacked in January 2008 by suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists; two Belgian travelers were killed. The security threat level in Yemen is high.
Go or No? This will not be the Year of the Tourist in Yemen—you should probably stay away. But if you’re lured by the forbidden, contact Shibam Tours in Sana’a.
The Allure: Travel the ancient Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. Go on camel treks in the desert and visit historic mosques.
The Warning: The State Department urges caution when traveling here because of a perceived potential for terrorist attacks or localized civil disturbances. However, there has been no such violence since May 2005.
Go or No? Using common sense and a lot of pre-trip research (including updates at travel.state.gov), a smart traveler should be able to visit the ancient sites of Uzbekistan with minimum risk. Contact Sitara International in Tashkent.
The Allure: From museums in Tehran to historic mosques and palaces in Esfahan, the ancient ruins of Persepolis and eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, there are plenty of reasons to visit.
The Warning: Compared with other safety cautions, the State Department’s warning for Iran seems tepid. “U.S. citizens [should] carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran.” The warning specifically mentions Americans of Iranian origin, who may be “targeted by authorities.” The United States has no embassy in Iran, but the Swiss Embassy in Tehran has a “U.S. Interests Section.”
Go or No? Violence is possible in areas where local ethnic groups have been oppressed, but Americans who avoid those areas (and any anti-U.S. protests) should have no trouble. Contact Arg-e-Jadid Travel Co. in Tehran.
The Allure: Top attractions include cave paintings in Tassili n’Ajjer National Park in the Sahara; camel trekking; the well-preserved Roman ruins of Djemila, Timgad, and Tipasa; and the crumbling Casbah, or old city, of Algiers.
The Warning: The State Department restricts the movement of embassy personnel in Algeria because of suicide car-bomb attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations aimed at foreigners. U.S. citizens who travel there should follow “prudent security practices” such as maintaining a low profile and “avoiding predictable travel patterns.”
Go or No? Come with me to the Casbah?Not this year. But if you insist, contact Touareg Voyages in Tamanrasset.
The Allure: Tombs, historic teahouses, ancient market towns, and the country’s first national park are all worth your time. Afghanistan’s director of tourism (yes, that’s right) says many of the country’s old castles and archaeological sites will one day be repaired and open to visitors.
The Warning: Americans are strongly warned against travel to Afghanistan. Much of the nation is a war zone. Foreigners are key targets for kidnappings and terrorist attacks. “Carjackings, robberies, and violent crime remain a problem,” says the State Department travel warning.
Go or No? When peace comes, Afghanistan’s director of tourism may find himself busy. But not yet. In the meantime, hard-core adventurers can contact Pamir Travel in Fremont, CA.
The Allure: Eritrea, on the Horn of Africa between Sudan and Ethiopia, has Art Deco buildings in Asmara, a scenic railroad from the coast to the Rift Valley, and water sports on the Red Sea coast.
The Warning: Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and bad blood has existed between the two ever since. The State Department’s warning seems to be concerned less with crime and terrorism against Americans than with the face-off of troops at the frontier.
Go or No? Foreigners are restricted in where they can travel. Getting a visa can be a hassle. There are few major tourist attractions. It’s a toss-up whether a visit is worthwhile, but interested travelers can contact Damera Tours in Asmara.
The Allure: Among the chief attractions are Victoria Falls, wildlife viewing in Hwange National Park, and the distinctive rock formations of Matobo National Park.
The Warning: Much of the country’s infrastructure “has collapsed.” Security is “unpredictable.” Crime is “a serious problem.” Nevertheless, the State Department lifted its travel warning on April 8, 2009, because there was a return of basic medical, food, and fuel services.
Go or No? If you want to drop some cash on a safari, there are plenty of safer choices for now. But if you’re determined to visit, get more details by contacting the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority in Harare.
The Allure: Play Kipling on a cruise down the Irrawaddy River, enjoy hot-air ballooning over ancient Bagan, and wander the market stalls in Yangon, the capital.
The Warning: Burma is ruled by a ruthless military junta that is suspicious of foreign visitors. Travelers should assume their activities are being watched. Routine medical care is inadequate. There is no State Department warning on Burma, but U.S. Treasury sanctions ban the import of Burmese souvenirs or gifts. Burma is a cash society, so don’t plan on using credit cards, ATM cards, or traveler’s checks.
Go or No? This place is for the very adventurous traveler only. The Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board in Yangon can provide a list of tour operators.
The Allure: Iraq is simply one huge museum, with 10,000–12,000 important archaeological and historical sites, depending on who’s counting. Among the highlights are the site of ancient Babylon, the first-century ruins of Hatra, and the 4,000-year-old Ziggurat at Ur.
The Warning: Suicide bombings, grenades tossed onto cars from overpasses, land mines placed in roads, rockets and mortars fired at hotels: Is it any wonder the State Department travel warning says Iraq is “very dangerous”?
Go or No? Unless you’re with the U.S. government or military, consider Iraq off-limits. Nevertheless, Atlas Travel & Tourist Agency in Amman, Jordan, can get travelers in.