Traveling against State Department Advisories

Travel Advisory Levels

When I first began traveling internationally to Europe in 1969, no warning system by the United State Department of State was readily available for citizens abroad.  I have visited countries where travel advisories should have been in place.  When I first landed in Santiago, Chile, in the spring of 1974, a year after a military takeover and murder of elected President Salvador Allende, I could still feel the tenseness.  Soldiers patrolled the streets and even guarded entrances of movie theaters. Bullet holes punctured government buildings.  In neighboring Argentina, businessmen were being kidnapped for ransom.  Under the current system of warnings, I suspect I would have been warned to reconsider travel.  But I didn’t know and as my grandmother used to say, “ignorance is bliss.”

Beginning in 1978, bulletins became available for those in the know which included government employees, travel agencies, tour groups and educational institutions with study abroad programs.  Not until 1990 was the State Department ordered by law to develop a more comprehensive advisory system to be accessible by all.

The first system only offered two possibilities, an advisory and a warning.  The advisory would be akin to watch your purse, don’t be out alone at night, or even be aware of an election.  The warning indicated more serious concerns – terrorism, civil unrest, serious health concerns, and even kidnapping.  I once taught a friend a Spanish phrase to memorize in case she got in trouble.  “Ayudame.  Soy rehen.”  “Help me.  I’m a hostage.”  She didn’t laugh when I translated.

Simply having a travel advisory or even warning doesn’t mean a country is off the itinerary.  Some warnings only apply to sections of a country. Before our son was to be married in Guatemala in 2013, a concerned brother called. He had read the warnings from the State Department about travel there.  I looked at them more carefully and noted we would not be in any of the areas of violence and that the country had their own tourist police to keep travelers safe.  We were rewarded with the beauty of a wedding on the shores of Lake Atitlan that enchanted us all.

Whether to travel with an advisory in place depends for me on several factors – how much risk is it really, what does the local news report, and most importantly, what do our local guides say.

When I wrote our guide in the Assam Valley of India in 2016 that the area was under a U.S. Advisory against travel because of possible terrorist activity, he was stunned.  He replied eloquently, describing the tranquility of the area and noting the lack of any disturbance for his clients.  He even offered to have recent travelers write me of their experience.  We were glad we decided to continue with the trip as it proceeded without incident, at least until the last day when there was a police shootout with terrorists just down the road.  Again, we were blissfully unaware until the next day’s paper.

Prior to our visit to Morocco, two young Swedish women were brutally attacked by extremists at a campground near a mountain town we wanted to visit.  It seemed an isolated incident and we proceeded with our plan.  It wasn’t until our arrival that we learned the town’s residents themselves had tracked down the murderers. They knew their town’s reputation as a tranquil and temperate retreat from the desert below was at stake.  It was a favorite spot in Morocco.

There are some countries with continuous warnings such as Israel.  The failure to resolve territorial issues with the Palestinians causes an undercurrent of resentment that can erupt at any time. In 2011, we arrived just as Big Bertha, their then new anti-missile system, was shooting down rockets from the Gaza Strip.  I’ve talked with so many who want to visit Israel but have concerns about their safety.  I tell them there is never going to be a perfect time to visit that amazing country and they should just go.

In 2018, the State Department revamped the program, eliminating the difference between advisory and warning.  Today, four advisory levels are defined from “exercise normal precaution” to “do not travel” and include specific reasons for the caution, including my favorite – possible kidnapping.  I’ve also used a new program called STEP or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to stay abreast of current conditions for any country I’m approaching.  I still get warnings about Hong Kong.

Because of Covid 19 today, the entire world is under a “reconsider travel” or “do not travel” warning on the State Department’s online map. I’ve never seen that before, certainly not in peaceful times.  My hope is that in a year, the map will be more inviting, and I can dust off my passport.

2 Responses to “Traveling against State Department Advisories”

  1. Sherri Gilmore

    Don’t know how this got buried in my email, but I just read it. I’ll never forget the evening we thought we would be “rehen” when your apartment got tossed in Quito. I’ve never looked at police officers the exact same way since then. What an experience that was and also what was happening in Santiago de Chile. A great trip nevertheless, with only a few moments of being scared.

    • Mary Clark Traveler

      Sherri, I remember that evening in Quito very well and briefly thought about including it in this story. Maybe I’ll find another story to tuck it in with. thanks for writing.


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