Danger Zone: Where NOT to Travel in 2020 (and Safe Alternatives)
When traveling, it's important to break out of your comfort zone, but you also want to know where it's safe to travel right now.
The Most Dangerous Countries to Visit (and Safe Alternatives)
Travel at its best can be exciting, stimulating, thrilling and breathtaking. Discovering new places, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures often requires an effort to break out of your comfort zone, and, in doing so, travel becomes a learning experience.
Some of that education may come from things going wrong: A bus breaking down in a remote rainforest in Mexico for five hours or an airline losing your luggage for a week-long vacation to London can teach you a lot about patience, how to make the best of a bad situation, and to travel lighter.
But travel can also be dangerous, especially if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories keeps tabs on the world’s "danger zones," listing the most dangerous countries you should avoid.
Here, we take a look at the most perilous of them, so you can skip the dangerous places and keep the exhilaration of travel on the positive side.
North America: Watch Out for the Bahamas
In 2019, the Bahamas were hit hard by Hurricane Dorian, which caused power outages and damaged roads, and even wiped out entire resorts. The storm was the worst ever to ravage the island-nation. Hundreds went missing and 70 were killed.
In addition, violent crime has been an issue on the islands of Grand Bahama and New Providence (where the capital city of Nassau is of particular concern). Travelers are advised to exercise increased caution in these areas.
Do Visit: The Outer Islands
The Outer Islands, such as the Abacos and the Exumas, are considered safer bets, with crime less common.
The bad news? Many of these islands were damaged by Dorian. Still, some flights have resumed to the area and resorts are slowly starting to reopen. In fact, the tourism board for the Bahamas is beckoning travelers to return, as your dollars keep the economy going and can help them to rebuild.
Use Precaution in Central America
In Central America, the State Department urges Americans to reconsider traveling to Nicaragua, which has limited healthcare availability and arbitrary enforcement of laws that lead to more crime, while San Salvador has a higher level of violent crimes. Honduras has a heightened alert due to crime, but it isn't widespread across the country and tourist-centric zones may be safer than off-the-grid travel.
If you do decide to visit these countries, stay aware of your surroundings, avoid walking and driving at night, keep expansive jewelry and signs of wealth hidden, and only use certified tourist authority companies and guides.
Now Safe: Mexico
Stories about travelers catching a taxi, only to be whisked off somewhere remote and left stranded after being robbed in Mexico circulate in the news, as do reports of bloody cartel wars. The dangers are real.
However, the U.S. Department of State downgraded its travel advisory for 2020, in part because the most dangerous areas are not actually frequented by vacationers. You can still delve deep into Mexican culture in safer states like Oaxaca, which is home to the city of the same name. Here, you’ll find multicolored colonial buildings dating back to the 16th century as well as colorful foods in open-air markets.
Experience a lively central square, the Zocalo, shop for handmade arts and crafts, and dine in intimate, authentic Mexican restaurants that won’t even know what queso dip is – Oaxaca is worlds away from overcrowded tourist destinations like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta.
With a mountainous setting, you won’t find beaches and all-inclusive resorts, but you will learn about the history of the region, particularly when reviewing the murals at Palacio de Gobierno.
South America: Watch Out for Venezeula
There is political upheaval currently taking place in Venezuela, which lands a top spot on the State Department’s “Do Not Travel” zone. The country is experiencing high violent crime rates, poor health infrastructure, and political rallies and demonstrations, not to mention the arbitrary arrest and detention of Americans.
With food, medical supplies, water and electricity shortages, the situation in Venezuela is so dire, thousands of residents are seeking asylum in neighboring countries.
Do Visit Bolivia, Argentina and Peru
Much of South America is very safe for travel and does not carry even a slightly elevated alert from the State Department, including Bolivia, Argentina and Peru.
Both Peru and Bolivia straddle Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world, rising more than 12,500 feet above sea level. Be sure to sample the local delicacy, which is guinea pig, served whole and skinned (not for the faint of heart!).
Adventurous travelers make their way in droves to see the 15th-century lost Incan city that is Peru's Machu Picchu, set in a stunningly beautiful mountainous landscape one may reach by hiking or train.
In Argentina, the cosmopolitan Buenos Aires is South America’s business hub, as vibrant and exciting as any capital.
Use Precaution in Brazil and Colombia
Brazil is a popular place for vacations, especially to Rio de Janeiro. However, crime can be a big issue in Brazil, including Rio. The State Department warns tourists to steer clear of the areas that border Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and other countries due to higher crime than the coastal cities. You should also be cautious at night and stay away from Brazil's informal housing developments known as favelas, communidades, vilas or conglomerados.
Although Bogota is booming, you should exercise caution in Colombia, avoiding Arauca, Cauca, Choco, Narino and Norte de Santander due to high crime and terrorism. Popayan, Nuqui and Cucuta in these areas are safe, if you can travel directly to them.
Now Safe: Falkland Islands
Under British rule for generations, the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina in the 1980s. The islands, just off the coast of Argentina, were claimed to be part of their land. Britain won the brief war, but in the minds of Americans, the remote Falklands received a bad rap for being a place of unrest.
This is absolutely not true.
These very safe islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean are gorgeous and filled with wildlife. (And tout a level-one travel advisory.) From stunning beaches to maritime exploration to colonies of penguins (the islands are near Antarctica, after all), there is much outdoor beauty to enjoy and explore here.
Africa: Watch Out for Countries of Unrest
The State Department views a number of African countries as unsafe for American travel.
In Somalia, there are reports of “schools” being used as “cultural rehabilitation facilities,” holding people against their will with physical abuse rampant. In Mali, terrorist and armed groups have targeted night clubs, hotels, restaurants and other places frequented by visitors with attacks and kidnappings.
Kidnappings and murders of civilians are common in Central African Republic, while political and ethnic fighting in South Sudan is so pervasive, journalists have been killed in the line of duty. U.S. citizens and government officials are especially targeted in Libya, where kidnapping for ransom is commonplace.
Both South Sudan and Mali were added to the travel advisory in late 2019 due to an increase in crime, kidnappings and terrorism.
Do Visit Namibia, Botswana and Zambia
Did the warnings in Africa scare you? If you have always dreamed of taking an African safari, don’t be shy.
Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, far removed from the aforementioned dangers, are in completely safe zones, according to the State Department. Home to national parks and multiple game preserves, the countries offer a chance to see lions, giraffe, zebras, elephants and more in their natural environment.
Tribes of bushman still living the same way of life their forefathers have lived for centuries, including the San Bushman, who have lived in Southern Africa for 80,000 years, are friendly, and children in the tribes especially love meeting — and are fascinated by — foreigners. Visiting a tribe provides a cultural experience like no other.
Use Precaution in Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Congo, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau
Besides the countries marked absolutely unsafe to visit, there are several countries that have higher security risks, which Americans are urged to reconsider visiting.
Niger is experiencing higher levels of crime and terrorism, and armed robbery is common. This is also the case in neighboring Nigeria, where civil unrest and piracy are on the rise. Do not visit Borno and Tobe states or the northern Adamawa state of Nigeria due to terrorism.
Minefields along the borders of Libya and Sudan make Chad unsafe, along with its carjackings, muggings and crime, also found in Mauritania.
The government warns of any travel to Sudan's Darfur region, Blue Nile state and South Kordofan state; also be aware that other parts of the country are experiencing civil unrest and terrorism.
Keep an Eye Open in South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe
Although much of South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are safe and welcoming to travelers, these countries do still come with their own cautions.
Tanzania is targeting and attacking members of the LGBTI community with harassment, unwarranted examinations and detention, as well as charges of unrelated crimes.
Zimbabwe and South Africa are experiencing crime and civil unrest as well, so if you visit you should monitor the news for breaking events and stay away from political rallies, demonstrations and crowds.
Now Safe: Morocco
In recent years, the State Department has advised heightened precaution in Morocco due to reports of travelers being mugged and attacked. Petty crime, harassment and attacks on women were on the rise, and there was an increased risk of terrorism.
However, only two terrorist attacks have taken place in the country since 2000, and the U.S. travel advisory dropped Morocco down to a level one in spring of 2018, opening the door for U.S. visits to the North African country.
Precautions still are in order and you shouldn’t let your guard down in the markets. You should also stay in heavily populated areas unless with a tour operator, and be respectful to locals. The people of Morocco aren’t thrilled with having their photo taken, and expect foreigners to cover their skin when visiting.
With this awareness, you can safely visit this country that's home to staggering mountains, expansive desert and the bustling city of Marrakesh, which Winston Churchill once called "the last paradise on Earth."
Middle East: Watch Out for War-Torn Countries
Unrest in the Middle East has been a way of life for quite some time, with Americans urged extreme caution in Iran, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where wars continue to rage and religious freedom is not commonplace.
Kidnappings, hostage-taking, suicide bombings, and insurgent and terrorist attacks are at "critically high levels" in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. In Iran, the arrest and detention of U.S. citizens is a frequent occurrence, the State Department warns.
The killing of Iran's top military commander, as well as a major Iraqi militia leader, in January 2020 has led to increased airstrikes and attacks against U.S. citizens in Iraq, who are warned to stay away from the country. The U.S. Embassy has been abandoned in Baghdad.
Do Visit Qatar and United Arab Emirates
Not all of the Middle East is closed off to the west: The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are extremely safe, with some of the strictest laws to keep crime to a minimum. Both have become popular destinations in recent years, due to the increasing number of high-end resorts, shopping and over-the-top grandeur found in Dubai and Doha, respectively.
The UAE is the third richest country in the world and holds 190 Guinness World Records, including the world's tallest skyscraper with a 90-degree twist (above, the Cayan Tower) and the world's tallest hotel in the world, the Gevora Hotel, which is 75 stories tall.
Both Dubai and Doha are waterfront cities with manmade islands offering outdoor shopping and art promenades. While these wealthy countries may provide only a limited view of the complexities of the Middle East as a whole, they are fascinating places to explore.
Use Precaution in Turkey and Lebanon
Lebanon's coastal areas are safer than its borders. An advisory remains not to visit the borders of Syria, due to terrorism, and Israel, due to armed conflict. Refugee settlements from Syria also carry heightened concerns for conflict.
Borders are an issue in Turkey, as well, where Syria and Iraq have been plotting terrorist attacks in highly populated areas such as shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, churches, sporting events, airports and more. However, Turkey has received a downgrade in its threat level and is deemed safer than Lebanon. Turkey is now a Level 2 country, with travelers advised to exercise increased caution.
Now Safe: Oman
Oman’s neighbors of Saudi Arabia and Yemen may be the reason some travelers don’t think the country is stable enough to visit. But actually, Oman is a neutral country that tries to avoid the conflicts of other Middle Eastern nations, and it currently carries only a level-one security risk from the travel advisory.
Crime is very rare in the country, and terrorism is relatively uncommon. Americans should avoid travel along the borders, but can otherwise enjoy this country's 2,000-mile coastline along the Arabian Sea, Indian Sea and Gulf of Oman.
Other highlights can be found in the Sharqiya Sands desert and Jebel Shams mountains. The capital city of Muscat touts a fantastic golden-sand beach, beautiful mosques and palaces, and lively markets and shopping.
Asia: Watch Out for North Korea and China
Spanning more than 57 million square miles in size, Asia offers endless travel possibilities. However, the government urges travelers to stay out of North Korea.
The U.S. does not have any official diplomatic relations with the country to assist with emergencies, and U.S. passport holders are not allowed to travel to, in or through North Korea without special validation from the Department of State, and these special validations are limited.
In February 2020, China was added to the "Do Not Travel" list with the outbreak of the coronavirus. The country has suspended air, train and road travel in an attempt to contain the fast-spreading and deadly virus.
Do Visit Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan
Asia is an expansive continent, made up of nearly 50 countries that provide as many unique travel opportunities for wanderlusters.
One of the safest countries is South Korea, with 5,000 years of history and an exotic, bustling capital city, Seoul. Another excellent choice? Taiwan, which was ruled by Japan for 50 years and by China since 1945, and offers a blend of both cultures.
There is no unusual need for caution when visiting Japan, a mix of old and new, home to thriving, fast-moving Tokyo and the temples and geisha culture of Kyoto.
And, one of the "it" destinations of 2019, Vietnam is a combination of lush mountains and beautiful beaches paired with the historic Ho Chi Minh City and Mekong Delta.
Use Precaution in Macau, Hong Kong, Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan
Overall, Asia is a welcoming and safe place for Americans. But travelers are asked to exercise a bit more caution in some areas.
Macau and Hong Kong, with their close proximity to China, have been placed on the cautionary list due to an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Nepal's slight increase in political violence has landed the normally safe country on the precautionary list, as well. Travelers are advised to avoid demonstrations and to not be alone.
An increased risk of terrorism has also moved the nations of Azerbaijan, India and Tajikistan onto the list, with civil unrest taking place near the India-Pakistan border and the states of Jammu and Kashmir. Rape is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country, and sexual assaults are taking place in tourist destinations. Women should not travel alone.
Now Safe: Kazakhstan
Landlocked Kazakhstan has, in the past, gotten a bad rap for its location near China and Russia, along with its extremist ties. Travelers reported being drugged and mugged, and corrupt authorities pushed the country into a zone where foreigners thought it best to skip a visit.
But since April 2018, Kazakhstan has been a level one-country. In cities like Almaty and Astana, crime rates are lower than in some U.S. cities.
The country’s cities have been used as trading hubs between Europe and Asia for thousands of years, and there's much to recommend them to travelers. You can also explore (without fretting too much about safety) the country's stunning coastline and towering mountains.
Europe: Watch Out for Terrorism
Terrorism targeting unsuspecting tourist areas in Europe has increased over the years. While formerly the alerts were in larger cities like Paris and London, more and more attacks have been occurring in cities such as Munich, as well as Nice, France and Manchester, England.
When visiting Western Europe, use caution if visiting crowded areas and public venues; stay aware of your surroundings and watch the news for any alerts, especially in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium.
Do Visit Eastern Europe and Scandinavia
Terrorist attacks are not taking place in Eastern European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia, which are all experiencing a boom in travel with more adventurous Europe-lovers branching deeper into the continent.
Switzerland's notorious gendarmerie, neutrality and wealth have kept the country on the safe list, and the country has not experienced any terrorist attacks.
Scandinavian countries, with the exception of Denmark, also appear on the State Department's clear list. Enjoy Norway, Finland and Sweden's natural beauty, as the countries are revered for their outdoor activities. In the winter months, hordes of tourists visit in hopes of catching the northern lights.
Now Safe: Albania
In the late ‘90s, Albania went through a civil war that toppled its government. The war consisted of riots, civil unrest and deaths. Since then, Americans have been wary of traveling to the country.
You may be surprised to learn, then, that Albania is deemed a safe country by the U.S. government, with low violent-crime rates and minimal attacks on foreigners. With a level-one advisory, more and more travelers are beginning to uncover this welcoming country along the Adriatic Sea on the Balkan Peninsula.
Like its northern neighbors of Croatia and Montenegro, Albania is filled with castles and archeological sites. This mix of history and stunning scenery, plus warm people, makes Albania a true uncovered gem.
Oceania: Watch Out for Indonesia
Although the travel advisory for Oceania remains low, the U.S. State Department does feature a level two alert: Exercise Increased Caution in many countries of Indonesia.
Terrorism and natural disasters such as tsunamis, volcano eruptions and earthquakes are reasons for the extra precautions, although in Central Sulawesi and Papua, civil unrest is also causing some trouble.
Visitors are advised to use caution when in crowded areas, nightclubs and bars, shopping areas, and restaurants.
Keep an Eye Open in Australia
Australia began the new year with severe brush fires that destroyed homes and killed more than 1 billion animals, as well as their habitats. The images of scorched koalas will never cease to be heartbreaking.
In February, Australia lifted its state of emergency as the threat of fires finally subsided. However, the threat remains and there are acres upon acres of lands that have been fully destroyed by the fast-moving wildfires, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria.
Do Visit Palau
The island nation of Palau is deemed a low-level threat to American visitors, and is listed as a Level 1 country.
Visit to snorkel its aquamarine waters dotted with reefs and filled with underwater caves, or to kayak near its coastline.
Now Safe: New Zealand
The terror attack on a mosque in New Zealand in March 2019 scarred a country renowned for its hospitality. While the attack reminded people around the world that such horrors can take place in even the most beautiful settings, the country reacted quickly to ensure foreigners would continue to feel safe and welcome, including by implementing a successful gun buyback program.
The country’s outstanding natural landscape is ideal for outdoor-loving travelers looking to hike, mountain bike, kayak, fish and more. The capital city of Wellington and exciting city of Christ Church offer many modern luxuries, while guests should make an effort to meet and interact with the Maori, who love to show off Polynesian dances, songs and traditions.
Bottom Line: See the World
Remember, some vacations may be about relaxation, but travel at its best is an immersive experience. It can be rewarding to seek out new experiences and get uncomfortable. But take precautions to make sure you have a good time and get home safely.
Trust yourself and stay aware of your surroundings, and you'll find plenty of places to explore in this complicated world that contains ample risks and rewards.