Understanding new State Dept. advisories
The U.S. State Department recently revised the way it classifies risks you face when visiting other countries. Each country gets a risk rating of one to four, replacing the old “warning” system.
In practice, it looks like the new system will provide more useful risk assessments, but the utility of recommended precautions you should take in response to risks is underwhelming.
The new system measures risk levels you face when visiting other countries at four levels:
- Exercise normal precautions, indicating, essentially, no more risk than travel generally.
- Exercise increased caution, indicating “something bad might happen.”
- Reconsider travel, indicating “you’re probably better off going somewhere else.”
- Do not travel, indicating “keep out” because it’s risky, and U.S. consular assistance may be unable to reach you if you get into trouble.
Local risks identified
The Department assigns a rating to every country in the world, and basic ratings apply to an entire country. Risks are most commonly defined as local crime, potential terrorist attack or natural disasters.
But in the detailed report for each nation, the Department indicates that in a nominal level-two country, certain areas may be at levels three or four. Or conversely, a few key cities in level three and four countries may be at level two.
The Department website posts a world map that color-codes countries by their overall risk assessment levels at travelmaps.state.gov/TSGMap/.
Among the key takeaways:
- A surprising number of popular destination countries in Europe are at level two, including Belgium, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. The rest of Europe is level one.
- In the Americas, Mexico is level two overall, due to endemic crime, but several entire states are level four, as are a few former tourist centers, most notably Acapulco.
All of Central America is level two or higher, except Costa Rica, which is level one. Even the Bahamas are level two.
In South America, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, French Guiana, Suriname and Uruguay are level one; other countries are level two or higher.
- If you’re interested in visiting North Africa, stick to Morocco, the area’s only level one country. In South Africa, Zambia shows the lowest risk.
- In central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are all level one. In Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are level one, along with Australia and New Zealand.
- The level four “do not visit” countries are the usual suspects: the war-torn areas of central Africa, certain Middle Eastern countries (such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), and North Korea.
The State Department’s risk analyses seem to me to be on the mark, and I would think at least twice before heading for a level three or level four country.
The problem I have is with the Department’s recommendations for coping with levels two and three: “Be aware of your surroundings when traveling to tourist locations and crowded places,” and “Follow the instructions of local authorities.” Both suggestions seem to be woefully lacking in practical guidance.
May affect insurance coverage
It’s too early to know how the new system will impact travel insurance. Some current trip-cancellation policies link cancellation benefits to issuance of a State Department “warning” (under the old system) subsequent to the time you make your first payment.
What isn’t clear yet is whether that will translate directly to assignment of level four (or even level three) risk to a destination subsequent to initial payment.
It is clear, however, that insurance is not likely to cover cancellation and other contingencies resulting from events that occur in countries already at levels three, four or possibly even two at the time you make initial payments.
Almost all insurance coverage is limited to “unforeseen” events, and a crime problem or local violence in a country labeled as level three or four at the time you make payments would almost certainly not be “unforeseen.”
As I’ve frequently noted, the only way to keep your own control over when to cancel is to buy “cancel for any reason” coverage.
Before you head out for the country, get a fix on risks in your destinations at travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel.html. But don’t expect any useful suggestions about how to cope with the risks.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.
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