Americans have a distorted sense of safety and this leads to a lot of unfounded fear of travel to other countries. Studies show that people overestimate the risk from sensational dangers (i.e. homicides, and other things the media likes to report) and underestimate the risk from mundane causes (i.e. diabetes). The sensationalist American media certainly plays a big role in people’s fear of travel. This is probably true in other countries as well, but I’ve only read the studies on Americans.
Back in 2014 I published a post How Safe is International Travel Really? in which I looked at various metrics of safety to address the concern that international travel is dangerous. One of the studies I used was the Global Peace Index from the Institute for Economics and Peace. They’ve just published a 2018 report so it’s time to update my safety story.
The Global Peace Index ranks countries by their peacefulness. “The GPI covers 99.7 per cent of the world’s population, using 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators from highly respected sources, and measures the state of peace using three thematic domains: the level of Societal Safety and Security; the extent of Ongoing Domestic and International Conflict; and the degree of Militarisation.” These metrics of safety may not directly correlate with safety for travelers, but they’re one way of determining which countries are more or less dangerous for both travelers and the people who live there.
Highlights from the Global Peace Index
Iceland is the safest country in the world, followed closely by New Zealand, Austria, Portugal and Denmark. I bet most people would not have guessed Austria and Portugal would be in the top 5.
The study has five levels of safety: very high, high, medium, low, and very low. Among the high safety countries are Malaysia, Croatia and Chile, all countries I’ve visited. On those trips (as with most of my travels) I’ve been warned by friends to be careful, implying I’m visiting somewhere risky. Also in the high safety list is: much of Southeast Asia, lots of west African countries, Kuwait, Albania, Mongolia, and several other countries in South America. Lots of places many folks would consider more dangerous than the United States. I don’t mind the warnings from friends, they care about me. But they probably should be warning me to be careful every time I leave their home in my car as driving is much riskier than travel.
In the medium risk category, the United States is at the bottom, just .002 away from the next lowest ranked country, Myanmar, which falls across the line, in the low safety category. The U.S. is hanging on to a medium ranking by its fingernails. It is #121 out of 163 places ranked. Among the other countries in the low safety group that have only a tiny bit worse safety score than the United States are Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. “For a number of years, the United States has scored the maximum (worst) possible score on a number of domains, including incarceration, external conflicts fought, weapons exports, and nuclear and heavy weapons, masking any ongoing deteriorations in these areas.” With the exception of incarceration, those indicators probably don’t directly impact tourists to the U.S. Although the more wars or proxy wars the U.S. fights abroad, the more anti-foreign sentiment we’re likely to see at home, which definitely creates a danger for foreign tourists.
Is this ranking a good proxy for tourist safety?
I think this list is a starting point for tourists, but you can’t just draw a line at some specific score on this Global Peace Index and declare all countries below it unsafe for visitors. Here are a few examples of experiences that run counter to the scores.
Colombia falls near the bottom of the low safety group. I traveled around Colombia a few years ago and found it quite safe, with the exception of the risk of theft in Bogota (it’s best not to use your smart phone in public on the streets because people run up and grab them). A friend of mine spent some time this summer in Colombia traveling around with her four young children and she also found the country very friendly and safe.
In the very unsafe category there are some countries with active wars going on, and I’d definitely avoid those places. But also in that group is Russia. As with the United States, militarization is a big contributor to the negative score of this country. But reports I’ve heard from recent travels suggest Russia is perfectly safe for visitors. I went to Moscow years ago and found it quite safe, but that was too long ago for a fair assessment today.
Indonesia is in the high safety list, but I have some friends who were robbed, more than once, staying at Airbnb houses in Bali. I believe this is a specific risk/scam in Bali, but it does help make the point that you need to look at the specific risks in the place you are visiting rather than generalizing about a country.
Of course it is entirely possible to travel to a country with active military conflict and avoid the areas of danger and have a very safe trip. So general country-wide metrics should be only a starting point when considering safety of travel. In addition, there are places that are dangerous for locals but where foreigners are quite safe, or visa versa. So I encourage people to look closely at the specific situation in cities/regions you want to visit rather than making broad conclusions about a country’s safety. And, of course, don’t do stupid things like crossing borders illegally or breaking local laws.