Editorial: Are U.S. State Department’s Africa Travel Warnings Excessive?

Most seasoned travelers are aware that the U.S. State Department has issued numerous travel warnings and advisories for various countries in Africa.

PRI africa cutout

Courtesy of Public Radio International

But what most travelers are not likely aware of is the extent of it: according to Public Radio International (PRI), U.S. travel warnings cover ONE-THIRD of all countries in Africa, and more than ONE-HALF of the total land mass. No other continent comes close.

In fact, since 1996, the number of countries covered by the warnings has steadily risen, and the number of Americans visiting Africa has steadily declined.

While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, this inverse relationship seems a bit more than coincidental.

Though it’s true that the decline in visitors started in 2010, when the worldwide economic recession reached its peak, it’s also true that every time a travel warning is issued, tour operators in Africa reconsider their offerings and the traveling public’s perception of Africa as “dangerous” gets reinforced.

Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director for the US State Department’s overseas citizens services, told PRI that “It’s not the travel warning in and of itself that has an impact,” she says, “but the situation on the ground.”

This statement is debatable.

Though the warnings to stay away from countries experiencing civil strife — such as Egypt, Sudan or the Central African Republic — make sense for both logistical and safety reasons, warnings for places like Kenya, Burundi and Nigeria seem ill-informed.

Exactly zero American tourists have been killed or injured in Kenya, despite the sporadic attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi. Same with Nigeria, where violence is limited to several northern states and does not extend to tourist areas like Lagos or Calabar (however, Abuja is definitely a place to be careful in). And the warning for Burundi is based on the threat of an al-Shabaab attack, but not any ACTUAL attacks.

Places in the world where American travelers have actually been harmed since 2004: China, Egypt, Afghanistan, India, Russia and Texas. (Yes, Texas.)

According to the Pac Safe blog, “full-fledged travel warnings are typically issued in conjunction with some sort of organized terrorist or multinational criminal threat,” but not for countries that simply have a high crime rate in general (for example, there were 585 rapes in Delhi in 2012 and a 27% increase in street crime in Moscow in 2012).

I understand that the State Department is simply trying to protect U.S. citizens, but perhaps it is casting its net too wide in Africa, and not casting it wide enough in the rest of the world.

These travel warnings have direct effects on tourism and the livelihoods of people who work in travel-related jobs: for example, Kenya’s tourism industry is floundering after travel warnings were issued by the US, UK, France and Australia this year. Tunisia has suffered as well, with many non-stop flights from Europe being cancelled or reduced in the last year and the industry facing decline.

They also dissuade thousands of Americans from heading to a continent that is worth visiting, yet highly misunderstood and feared.

However, since we seem to be stuck with this overly-cautious advisory system for the time being, perhaps the best advice for travelers is to read the fine print. These warnings tend to be long and wordy, but they contain vital nuances that are often overlooked by both the media and tourists. Finding details on what specific cities and attractions to avoid and at what times can give a fuller picture of the actual danger of any given country.

And this advice applies also to countries without travel warnings attached to them: smart travelers should not assume their planned destination is safe (or unsafe) without doing some due diligence. And this does NOT mean looking at the news, which tends to be selective in its coverage of Africa and focus on disasters and problems.

It means getting the facts from a variety of sources: friends who have been there, local blogs, or travel forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorntree.

The bottom line: Americans should not rely on our overly protective (some would say zealous) government when deciding where in Africa to travel.

If we did, we’d be missing out on the beauty, majesty and hospitality of half of an entire continent.

Related: Public Radio International, PacSafe blog

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