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Understanding the State Department’s updated travel advisories

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

A traveler looking for global guidance from the U.S. State Department could be forgiven for being a bit confused. Official advisories — 209 of them — from the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs cover countries and areas in every nook of the planet, and one even warns of a blanket worldwide caution.

All destinations are ranked from levels 1 to 4, and places as disparate as Italy, China, Antarctica and the Dominican Republic are among the 58 countries that share a designation of Level 2, which means “exercise increased caution” — but for a host of reasons. The warnings range from possible terrorist attacks, in Italy, to arbitrary enforcement of local laws, in China, to “extreme and unpredictable weather,” in Antarctica. The Dominican Republic advisory warns of “violent crime,” which predated a sudden influx of American deaths in the country.

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More than half of the advisories are at Level 1, the lowest, which tells travelers to exercise “normal precautions.” But even the countries with the lowest warning level aren’t in the clear. More than two dozen Level 1 destinations are home to regions marked with their own, higher warnings, some that even get the most severe “do not travel” label. Heading to Panama or Peru? No problem, except for the parts with big problems.

So how should travelers heed the warnings meant to help them stay safe abroad? In short, the fine print — even for the most idyllic-seeming getaway spot — is important. On first glance, for example, the Barbados advisory might suggest there’s nothing to worry about, because it sits at the lowest level. But expanding to read the entire advisory on the island nation reveals that the United States warns to avoid certain areas or activities, including two businesses that run “pirate ship” cruises at night.

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Matt Bradley, regional security director of the Americas for International SOS, a firm that provides health and security services to travelers, said the difficulty of rating an entire country is that different parts carry disproportionate levels of risk.

“The nuance of this system allows them to say, ‘While the overall country is Level 1, there are specific destinations that are Level 2 or Level 3,’" he says.

Michelle Bernier-Toth, the State Department’s managing director for the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, said the department makes its rulings based on information from embassies and consulates, security experts, local governments and other sources. And even in a destination that is considered low-risk overall, if there are specific zones that are off-limits or restricted for employees of the U.S. government, that information must be passed along to the public.

“We really want to be as accurate as we can so people can make an informed decision,” she says.

Because situations can change quickly, the State Department urges travelers to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive alerts about a destination and to provide ways for the U.S. Embassy to reach them in case of an emergency. Through the program, anyone can choose one or more countries and enter their dates of travel, and the department will email updates with alerts and advisories. Those messages also appear on Twitter at @TravelGov and on the Department of State’s Consular Affairs Facebook page.

Each advisory at Level 2 or higher includes specific risks such as crime, terror, civil unrest, natural disaster, health concerns and, as of April, kidnapping. The State Department’s site often spells out specific geographic areas of concern and also offers tips for dealing with those risks, links to more country information and warnings about what the U.S. government cannot do in an emergency.

The bureau also includes details for people traveling internationally under various circumstances: those going on a cruise, leaving the country with pets, going to high-risk areas or embarking on a pilgrimage. There are also recommendations for people in specific groups — the LGBTQ community, travelers with disabilities — who could find themselves vulnerable on the road.

Other countries issue their own advisories for international travel, but, Bradley said, it’s not necessary for a traveler to check several countries’ warnings. They should, however, be sure to pay attention to the advice of the country where they are a citizen.

“Check the site of your citizenship because that is the one written specifically for you,” he says. “The risks won’t change, but the citizenship-specific advice could change, and that could be confusing.” The United States, for example, warns citizens not to travel to Iran — a country with which the U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations — whereas Canada urges its citizens merely to use a high degree of caution.

If all that sounds hard to follow, consider that the system actually got an overhaul last year that made it easier to decipher. Under the old version, low-risk countries didn’t have any kind of advice. Only those destinations with concerns were singled out with travel warnings or alerts — and the difference wasn’t necessarily obvious.

State Department updates travel advisories to make them more understandable

“Frankly, I personally was tired of explaining the difference between a travel warning and a travel alert even to some of my colleagues,” Bernier-Toth said in a briefing about the new changes last year.

She told The Washington Post recently that the new system treats countries consistently, uses plain language, puts the risk indicators front and center, and makes information on how to deal with threats much more clear. The department still puts out short-term alerts about security, weather or other issues, even if they don’t change an overall advisory.

“We made the change because we found that the old system of travel warnings and travel alerts was not readily understood by people,” she says, “and we wanted to make our travel advisories — now that we have [one] for every country — clearer, more concise, more actionable and more accessible to people."

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