When government travel warnings put a country on a no-go list, what do you do? What’s ‘dangerous’ and what’s the reality? Our featured contributor Leon McCarron explores the gray area in between.
In June 2015, a lone gunman opened fire on tourists outside a beach hotel near Sousse, Tunisia. Before he was killed by the security services, he had shot dead 38 people; it was the deadliest attack of its kind ever recorded in the country.
The vast majority of the victims were British and subsequently, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) placed Tunisia placed on its ‘no-go’ list for British tourists. Then, in the summer of 2017, rather unexpectedly, that restriction was lifted. But the question many people were asking was: Just how safe is it, and how accurate is this advice?
For the FCO, as for the US State Department and other nations’ equivalents, their job is to provide their citizens with objective information on foreign travel, based on knowledge gathered from local embassies and intelligence services.
But this is only in an advisory capacity. Travel warnings can’t stop any of us from going anywhere we like—they can only make suggestions based on what they know. And depending on the country in question, the advice may be very detailed—isolating certain regions or cities, or even streets—while in other places, it’s more general.
If the FCO, for example, consider the risk to British nationals to be high, they will advise against “all but essential travel” (what’s “essential” is left to the discretion of the traveler) and when the threat is deemed to be imminent or extreme, such as terrorism, they’ll advise against all travel.
They [governments] may have huge resources, but in reality, they’ll never know every place intimately—and often, nuances and exceptions will get lost in the broad brushstrokes of their warning.
As travelers, it’s extremely useful to know what they have to say. Tunisia is a good example; the city of Sousse is now accessible, but the FCO adds caveats such as: “The Tunisian government has improved protective security in major cities and tourist resorts. But terrorists are still very likely to try to carry out attacks in Tunisia.” Other parts of the country are marked as more dangerous, and reasons given.
It would be foolish to ignore this, and I strongly advocate official advice as a first port of call. As well as providing context to the situation, the advice also has implications on travel insurance—the average policy will be invalidated if traveling to places on the no-go list.
But that’s not all there is to it. Firstly, the FCO and their counterparts will always, naturally, err on the side of caution. They may have huge resources, but in reality, they’ll never know every place intimately—and often, nuances and exceptions will get lost in the broad brushstrokes of their warning.
I’ve traveled extensively in places that are not deemed safe by the FCO and, thankfully, I have never run into trouble. But this isn’t just luck, although of course luck plays it part. I research each destination independently, ask local contacts on the ground, then decide. Southern Sinai, as an example, is marked as problematic by the FCO, yet most other assessments deem it safe—and I found that to be true. Similarly, in Iran, I found my insurance policy would be invalidated when I moved within 10 kilometers of the Iraqi border, even though, in practice, nothing changed there.
The impact of foreign office advice can also have unseen implications. In the Sinai, the local economy is based primarily on tourism, and that’s dipped dramatically since British tourist numbers dwindled. While safety is paramount, I’d have no hesitation in recommending friends to go there, with the usual caveats of checking the latest news beforehand.
And sometimes, travel warnings don’t always match the reality. As an example, Mexico, Mali, and Israel have regularly appeared on warning lists in the US, yet Americans are more likely to be killed in Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Similarly, in Australia, the government has recommended caution in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, yet many Australians visit all of those, regularly, and without batting an eyelid.
Of course, the issues at play in each destination are rarely, if ever, black and white, and it’s important we’re not paralyzed by unfounded worries. Right now, we appear to live in a world where mistrust and fear-mongering appear to prevail, perpetuated by certain strands of media—but travel can be the best antidote to that, reminding us that the vast majority of people are good and kind.
To immediately rule out journeying to every place our government has concerns about seems hasty. My advice is to do some extra homework. If you have plans booked to a destination that suddenly appears on the warning list, don’t panic. Poke around online, and ask in forums. Balance out your desire to go with what your insurance company says; sometimes, where you’re headed to is miles away from any trouble anyway.
So would I now visit Tunisia, for example? Absolutely. It’s a wonderful place, and in dire need of tourists. Even the experts now agree it’s likely to be safe.
For me, life is best when filled with calculated risk-taking and adventure—and tempered with pragmatism. Look for the line on which you feel comfortable, be sensible, and continue to go and see the world—and bring back stories for the rest of us.
Get the latest travel advice for US travelers from the US State Department.
UK travelers can find information on the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website.
Talk to other travelers (but do your own research!) on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum.
The story of Leon’s 1000-mile walk through the heart of the Middle East is published in his second book The Land Beyond.