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 like to update my analysis of the safety of global travel each year, mostly to reinforce my underlying position: visiting other countries is not dangerous! I say that with the utmost respect for all of life’s risks. And with plenty of caveats. If you travel to a war zone, that’s dangerous. If you travel to a place with unclean water and drink it, that’s dangerous. There are plenty of risks to travel. But not the ones many First World residents fear.
Below I look at different ways to assess risks to travelers around the world in an attempt to write objectively about travel safety.
U.S. State Department travel safety warnings
Let’s start with the U.S. State Department. Many Americans look to them for travel safety warnings. You can find an interactive travel map here.
According to this map, traveling around the United States is safe for Americans. But there are not a lot of other places in the world that are safe. I’m not surprised to see Canada and a number of countries in Europe considered safe. But there are a few surprises in the safe category: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and Vietnam.
Overall I believe that government travel warnings (from any government) are influenced by politics. But there is also some science involved. You can get useful information if you dig into the warnings in detail. Various travel advisories by the U.S. State Department offer detailed risk indicators covering crime, health, natural disasters and civil unrest. This detail can be very useful. The outbreak of Coronavirus in China is a serious risk to travelers that is hard to mitigate. But the political unrest in Hong Kong can be avoided by travelers willing to keep tabs on daily protest activities. While I wouldn’t make travel decisions based on this State Department map, the government information can be useful in painting a picture of the situation in your travel destination.
Forbes travel safety report
Forbes published a review of travel safety data in 2017. The report looks at various ways of predicting and measuring travel safety. The goal was to identify the countries that are most dangerous for Americans to visit. The per capita death rate of American travelers is one interesting metric.
Using this death rate data, the authors compared American State Department travel warnings to the deaths of Americans abroad. (Warnings for natural disasters were removed from this dataset.) They found that these warning are somewhat correlated with death rates. But there are a lot of cases where we have many travel warnings but few deaths, as well as the reverse, few warnings and a high death rate.
The warnings that aren’t correlated with deaths might still indicate danger for travelers. If the warnings are about things like robberies, rape, or other potential harm, but not death, perhaps they should still be heeded.
Solo female travel safety metrics
Two travel bloggers created a metric of safety for solo female travelers. It’s an interesting combination of metrics that include attitudes about violence against women, safety walking alone, and sexual violence. I think this is an interesting way of doing some relative ranking. But I was comfortable traveling alone in many of the countries ranked at the bottom of this list. The USA gets a C-. And I think most Americans are fine traveling around this country alone. I’d say a D isn’t far from a C-. So perhaps the lesson here is that women who will travel around the U.S. alone will probably be comfortable traveling most places alone.
Global Peace Index
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 2019: 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 below.
Arguing against the maps above, you could say that what we really want to measure is the incidence of violence against travelers. This index is measuring violence against locals.
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 avoiding 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.
South Africa and Brazil are popular destinations for travelers, but they rate poorly on this map.
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.