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US State Department Revamps Travel Advisories System

By: Joe Gleason

Travel alert vs. travel warning? Travelers, like me, who often found official US State Department travel guidance tough to decipher in the past should welcome State’s newly unveiled system of revamped Travel Advisories. Designed to provide clearer, more usable guidance to help travelers understand the risks they could face in destinations around the globe, the new Travel Advisories system is a significant improvement. While certainly not the only source travelers should consult, these new advisories should be one tool in the travel risk awareness kit.

Offering a more streamlined approach to country risk information than in years past, the new Travel Advisories categorize countries into four risk levels:

  • Level 1 – Exercise normal precautions
  • Level 2 – Exercise increased caution
  • Level 3 – Reconsider travel
  • Level 4 – Do not travel

Deeper descriptions of these levels on the State Department site provide more context to the factors considered in evaluating each country. Language used is clear, straightforward and, especially for government-speak, relatively unambiguous. Other noteworthy improvements:

  • Specific risk factors considered in a country advisory are listed in the upper right-hand corner and include: crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health, natural disaster, time-limited events (elections, sporting events, etc.) and the catch-all “other.”
  • Variations in risk within a country are noted, for example, if crime is a heightened concern in a specific region or city.
  • A world map with color coding based on advisory level to provide a global perspective.

And, to keep travelers aware of specific incidents or developing events, any alerts issued by US embassies and consulates will appear below the country advisory.

There are, of course, limitations to any US Government travel guidance. For international development types and others who frequently travel to higher risk environments for work, the general guidance in the travel advisories will inevitably appear too conservative – “Do not travel” to Afghanistan the State Department warns, then lists some very general risk mitigation measures. And, some guidance hews close to US government policy; for example, travelers are advised to “reconsider travel to Cuba”, given incidents involving US diplomatic personnel, despite the fact that the Miami Herald reports over 600,000 US nationals visited the island in 2016, the vast majority without issues.

Undoubtedly an improvement, this new system doesn’t replace professional travel security guidance and support from assistance providers such as International SOS, iJet, United Healthcare Global or risk management firms such as Control Risks or Unity Resources Group. These firms dig deeper than the State Department in both their analysis of risks in specific locations and guidance about how to manage those risks and respond to emergencies – both in general and when an incident occurs.

Despite the inherent limitations, the new Travel Advisories from the Department of State greatly enhance the official US travel risk guidance. With clearer language and more streamlined format these advisories should be one part of the information network used to build risk awareness before, and during, global travel.