When NOT to Visit a Country

It’s an age-old question for us travelers. When should you cancel a trip — if ever? This year has been a chaotic one for the world. There was a coup in Thailand, Iraq fell back into chaos, Honduras was once again named the murder capital of the world, Syria continues to unravel, Ukraine lost the Crimea, riots abound in Greece, and so on.

It’s not rare to find yourself in a position where you have the ticket, you have the itinerary, you’re all packed and ready to go, and then… something happens that makes you go, “Hmmm. Is this a good idea?”

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There are those who won’t travel to anyplace with a State Department warning against it. But if you listened solely to the State Department (or the news, for that matter), you’d probably be best just staying home. Consider this advice issued recently by the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom against the United States: ”There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by foreigners. You should monitor media reports and remain vigilant at all times.”

Us! Dangerous! Can you imagine? But it’s true. We are quite dangerous. And so is everywhere, really. Yes, there were attacks in Kenya over the past year, but that isn’t a reason not to go. The government is still functional, the police are visible. And if Al-Shabaab had its way, there’d be attacks every day, but there are not as many as school shootings in our own country. Unlike, say, Nigeria’s response to the Boko Haram insurgency, which just makes it seem incompetent.

And so my feeling is, if you take precautions and weigh the situations individually (how corrupt is the place? Will there be gangs of unemployed, uneducated teenage boys roaming the streets looking for something to do? Is there a police presence? Is there a noncorrupt police presence? Is there recourse to the law?), most places are fine and welcome tourists and travelers.

Kenya, Africa
Kenya, Africa

Kenya, Africa (Photo: daameriva/Flickr)

Related: Kenya to Americans: Please Come Visit, We Love You

But then there are times when they are really not fine. In my experience, there are three big reasons to cancel your ticket and not go, and it’s all about (real) safety concerns, moral objections, and health.

1. Civil war.

Never travel to a country that is in the midst of a civil war — or what amounts to one (like the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria). This may sound ironic, as I traveled to Iraq in 2011 and was in Mali (accidentally) at the outset of its civil war in 2012. But the risks of a civil war are different than being in an international war zone. In a non-civil war, there are usually green zones and some sort of protection (not that I am advocating this — I was in Iraq on assignment). In a civil war, the lines are blurred and things move very quickly. There is no assured safety, and the only advice I have if you get stuck in a situation like the one I was in in Mali is: GET OUT. ASAP. Now is not the time to see Iraq. Or Syria. Or Ukraine.


Zimbabwe, Africa (Photo: Alan/Flickr)

2. Moral objections.

There are some countries that I refuse to travel to and refuse to promote: Uganda because of its horrific stance on homosexuality (at one point the country was going to impose death sentences against homosexuals, but now it is “punished” with life imprisonment, in a law still dubbed “Kill the Gays”). North Korea because it has recently developed a nasty habit of arresting U.S. tourists it has been enticing to come visit to use as political pawns… that, and while the country’s leaders live in opulence, its people starve. Literally. And I’m still on the fence regarding Zimbabwe.

3. Health concerns.

Now, I am not talking dirty tap water or a case of Delhi Belly. I’m talking ebola. A disease that has a 90 percent fatality rate, is easily communicable, and is raging through West Africa right now. Doctors Without Borders has issued a warning, saying the disease, which has killed over 467 people so far in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, is “out of control.

At the end of the day, you should venture out, you should be bold, and you should be brave… but not foolhardy.

Related: How to Travel Anywhere and Not Get Killed or Maimed

All those countries that don’t fit into the three boxes above? Go. Explore and have fun (while being safe and savvy) — because your being there, visiting and spending money, is a huge play on the chessboard against terrorism.


Moon over Mombasa (Photo: Angelo Juan Ramos/Flickr)

Because, as hoteliers in Mombasa pointed out to NPR: The tourism industry is an important bulwark against terrorism — giving young men a legitimate opportunity for economic betterment. In almost every country in which terrorism has sprung up — Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, among others — the unemployment and poverty rates are astronomical. Young men with jobs, an opportunity to provide for their families, and hope for the future have something to protect and are far less likely to join the bad guys.

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