A lot of Americans are afraid to travel internationally because they think it’s not safe. Before departing for a trip I’m often warned to “be careful” by friends who look at me like I’m slightly crazy for going to fill-in-the-blank-non-European-country. This even comes from friends who are relatively knowledgable about international affairs. No doubt American travel fear is fueled by sensationalist media coverage. That same media coverage convinces many people that New York City is super dangerous. Big city folks like to laugh about the visitors wearing their backpacks on their stomachs clutching them in perpetual fear of theft, but they aren’t laughing when they talk about how dangerous it is to visit Asia/Africa/Latin America. Are they right to be afraid?
I’ve been to a lot of countries around the world, and I have generally felt safe everywhere. Sure I’ve been in situations where I was a bit nervous. But usually those were situations of my own making (i.e. hitchhiking alone in Mexico). I’ve been verbally harassed as a woman traveling alone in a few places. But I’ve never visited a country where I felt like I was in actual danger just walking down the street. But that’s all my personal perception. Maybe I’m just willfully ignorant of the risks.
Below I look at different ways to assess risks to travelers around the world in an attempt to write objectively about travel safety.
General metrics of travel safety by country
In 2013 The Atlantic published an article with this map:
They wrote: “Statistics for attacks on tourists are hard to come by, but one way to look at travel risks is through the travel warnings that governments issue for their citizens. Here’s a map put together by the CBC, based on warnings from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs.” A quick glance at the map shows that all of Canada’s closest political allies are given the best ratings. I have to wonder how much politics is behind this.
China is among the least violent countries measured by homicide rates (see map below) so I was curious about the “high caution” warning for travelers there. When I look at the source of the warning from the Canadian government I see “There is no nationwide advisory in effect for China. However, you should exercise a high degree of caution due to the occurrence of isolated acts of violence, including bombings and protests.” This is interesting because in 2013 in the United States we had the Boston Marathon bombing, significant protests over the trial of George Zimmerman (the man who killed an unarmed Black kid out of “self defense”), and the student at a Nevada middle school who opened fire on campus, just to name a few high profile cases. I wonder if the Chinese government warned its citizens against tourism in the United States in 2013. In my own travels to China I have always felt very safe out alone on the streets, even at night, safer than I feel in some parts of the U.S.
Another way to create this map that should be a bit more politically neutral is using the Global Peace Index. The index consists of twenty-three indicators of the existence or absence of peace from the following categories: measures of ongoing domestic and international conflict, measures of safety and security in society, and measures of militarization. The map below uses data from 2014: the top 20% (dark green) are the safest and the bottom 20% (red) are the least safe.
This should give a more accurate picture of safety relative to the United States than Canadian or American state department warnings. Note that parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America are safer than the United States by this measure. There are relatively few places that are rated more dangerous than the United States, and I’ll come back to the question of generalizing across an entire country (i.e. Mexico) below.
Arguing against the maps above, you could say that all we really want to measure is the incidence of violence against travelers. I could find no data on this. There are lots of sensational stories about isolated incidents, but I could find no systematic attempt to measure the reported violence against travelers by country. This is arguably the only thing that really measures safety for travelers.
Statistics can make anywhere seem dangerous
Here are some metrics of safety that paint a different picture than the usual American perspective.
If you believe prisons are a reflection of crime rates, this map should scare you into moving out of the United States.
The truth is, imprisonment rates in the U.S. aren’t actually correlated with crime rates. But this is a good example of how people can get scared with misinformation. This map does show you why arrested foreigners petition to be returned home rather than subjected to the American criminal justice system.
How about civilian gun ownership per capita as a measure of how safe it is to visit a country?
Seeing this, if I didn’t live in the U.S. I’d be afraid to visit.
Intentional homicide is often used as a proxy measure for crime because death is such an extreme outcome so reporting is assumed to be better than for other crimes.
I think most Americans don’t think of Morocco as a safe place to visit. Or Egypt. But both look great on this map. The truth is, I was in Egypt last year and although I found the verbal harassment of women to be extremely uncomfortable, the only time I felt danger for my physical safety was when I accidentally came across a street protest in Cairo. And the danger wasn’t from the protesters but from the military who had high powered guns trained on the demonstration. This danger was very easy to avoid, half a block away all was quiet and gun-free.
Is it possible to generalize about safety in a country?
You have to be careful with these generalizations. Even if reporting is accurate, for larger countries there can be significant variation. And these metrics may not indicate anything about the risk to travelers.
Next time you’re considering a visit to Louisiana for Marti Gras will you worry about being killed? The reality is, there is quite a bit of variation in relative safety across the United States, and even within a state.
In another example, the intentional homicide rate map above makes Mexico look pretty dangerous, but when we look at the country in more detail we see that some areas are considered very safe even by the U.S. State Department. I was in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Mexico D.F. in 2013 and felt very safe in all three states. In fact Chiapas feels safer than many American cities, by a long shot.
The creators of this map of Mexico note: “It is irresponsible to suggest that every inch of any country or state is completely safe or unsafe. So it is important to note that the violence in the 4 states above seldom targets tourists, making it statistically less likely that tourists will become victims.”
This is the reality of safety reports for travelers. Most of the information is not based on incidents of crime against tourists but on local conflicts, political opinions, and relative unrest within a country. If the people of a country are protesting against an unjust government this doesn’t necessarily make it unsafe for tourists (unless you’re American and that corrupt government is backed by American money and guns, in which case you might want to tell people you’re from Canada).
Bottom line: While I’d definitely avoid traveling in war zones, beyond this risk I think travelers should do their own research and draw conclusions based on real dangers to tourists rather than fear mongering sensationalist stories or politically motivated warnings and ratings.