Needless to say, it's a tough crowd out there. Wars, invasions, earthquakes -- yikes. Throw in the fact that we are bombarded with opinions and personal takes and tweets and carefully edited YouTube videos presented as fact and it is a wonder anybody leaves the house, much less goes on vacation.
In a few of my past articles, I've mentioned what I consider the Island of Fact in a Sea of Opinion when it comes to finding out what destination is safe, and which one isn't: The travel warning and alerts list of the Bureau of the U.S. Department of State. For all intents and purposes, this is the Travel Safety Bible. Of course, it is impossible to be 100% safe 100% of the time when you are on a trip, or even when you are not, but the list is still an excellent resource.
But what exactly is the warning list? And how does a country get on it in the first place?
The simplest answer is that there are places in the world where your safety as an American citizen cannot be guaranteed. It goes without saying that Yankees are not welcome in some corners of the globe, or, welcome in so far as we are seen as bottomless wallets. If you ever question your self-worth, remember only this: on the ransom market, Americans can go for millions of dollars.
So let's start with the basics: the Bureau of Consular Affairs is the body that keeps a lookout for American citizens abroad; they are the ones that issue the list. However, look closer and there is a distinction to be made, because the Bureau issues both travel "alerts" as well as travel "warnings." That a country has a warning next to its name is very serious; it could mean there is government instability, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. On the other hand, an alert means that your destination isn't necessarily dangerous, but that there are certain situations going on you should consider, such as strikes (hi, Paris Metro!), a viral outbreak (Ebola being a good example), or even hurricane season. Some unfortunate nations like Haiti and Burundi actually managed to have a warning and an alert concurrently.
The sad part about getting a warning, an alert, or both is that very often the Bureau is often referring to only a very specific part of a country, not the whole thing. A good example of this is the travel warning concerning Mexico, a country with a thriving tourism industry. But although destinations like Cancún and Puerto Vallarta are generally seen as safe, others, such as Nuevo Laredo, have been turned into war zones by competing drug cartels. This conflict has, dishearteningly, dragged the entire country down in the eyes of the watchdogs in Washington, and the warning extends to all of Mexico regardless where in Mexico you go. It is not the business of the Bureau to take chances.
Our neighbor to the south isn't the only one caught in this vise: The Philippines, another country high on the world tourism list, has a long-running civil conflict in a very small part of its territory, but it is intense enough that the country got smacked with a warning. The grim fact remains that some wingnut with a point to make can hop in a car or take a plane from the conflict zone to a peaceful destination and wreck havoc with an Uzi. Such is the case of the Tunisia alert, and in both countries, pale-skinned Westerners make easy targets because we stand out so much.
But as you might guess, it is not illegal to go to these places. Indeed, it was not illegal to go to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, nor was anybody having a seizure if you vacationed in the USSR or Cuba during the Cold War -- although you would have been watched like a hawk by all sides involved. Even today, it is perfectly legal, if extremely difficult, to go to North Korea (which is on the list, by the way). Niger has a fantastic, if modest, "rough travel" industry for intrepid sorts wanting to take the path less traveled, but there are some parts of the country one simply should not go, no matter how beguiling.
No one gets an alert or a warning off-handedly, and the list is up-to-date and meticulously maintained -- countries are coming and going all the time as situations change; alerts are particularly short-lived. If you have been paying attention to the news and then go through the 40 entities and two extra-territorial regions on the list, nothing should come as a big surprise. Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq are in practical meltdowns, Ukraine has all but been invaded by Russia, and is anybody in control in Somalia? Thanks to spillover violence from Syria, and the fact that it is often the battlefield for proxy wars between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, Lebanon has had a warning for years, a fate that may await Saudi Arabia.
The rule of thumb is that the "situation" that gets the nation or region a black mark has to, at the very least, be long-running, out of control, or uncontrollable like a natural disaster. This is why the West African Ebola crisis has a listing, but when China got hit with an outbreak of the black plague last year, its health authorities swooped in so quickly and thoroughly that there was no chance of a mass-spread of the disease and there was no need for a warning.
Even down-turning political and/or social situations aren't a shoo-in; while nobody is thrilled that a military junta has taken over in Egypt, there is no practical evidence the country is any less safe that it was before, although how safe "before" was can be debated. Regardless, the country has neither a warning nor even an alert. Even though France has been hit with a wave of attacks, the security in the country is still regarded as strong enough for the country to be considered safe.
It all boils down to what I have often advised: Do your research. But I'm going to add that you should do your research with sources whose job it is to make the call. No offense to Twitter.