State Department Updates Travel Advisories So They’re Understandable

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) —

The State Department on Wednesday unveiled four tiered categories to warn travelers of potential dangers overseas, using common-sense language ranging from “Exercise normal precaution” to “Do not travel.”

The new rankings replace the vague and often confusing system of issuing “travel alerts” for short-term dangers posed by events like health epidemics or mass protests, and “travel warnings” for long-standing concerns like armed conflict or political instability. The new rankings are applied to every country in the world, and even Antarctica.

Michelle Bernier-Toth, head of Overseas Citizens Services, said the changes were made because so few people understood the distinctions in the previous, broad rankings.

“I personally was tired of explaining the difference between a travel warning and a travel alert, even to some of my colleagues,” she said. “We needed to make it more accessible to people, to make sure the information was more easily understood using plain language.”

Under the new rankings, Level One, the lowest advisory, signals a need to “exercise normal precautions” in places where there is no more than the usual risk involved in international travel. Canada and Australia are among the countries ranked Level One.

Level Two means “exercise increased caution” for nations where there is a heightened risk to safety. Many countries in Western Europe, where there have been terrorist attacks in recent years, are listed as Level Two. Antarctica is also a Level Two.

Level Three translates bluntly as “reconsider travel,” with the recommendation to avoid going to countries with serious risks. Turkey, Russia and Venezuela are considered Level Three.

Level Four is for countries with a “greater likelihood of life-threatening risks” in which the U.S. government may be very limited in its ability to help. Travelers already in those countries are advised to leave as soon as it is safe.

Eleven countries come with the do-not-travel recommendation, most in Africa and the Middle East – Mali, Central African Republic, Libya, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

In addition, the new system will explain why the advisory was made, with one-letter logos: C for crime, T for terrorism, U for civil unrest, H for health risks, N for natural disasters, E for special events like an election and O for some other reason.

U.S. citizens are not banned from traveling to Level Four countries. The one exception is North Korea, where the State Department has prohibited citizens from using their U.S. passports to visit without first obtaining a waiver.

Cuba, which last year came with the travel advisory to not travel there, is now listed as Level Three. Bernier-Toth told reporters it was not listed as a Level Four, even though most U.S. diplomats have been ordered to leave the country over concerns they were targeted for attacks, because it still has not been determined what caused embassy personnel to suffer hearing and brain injuries.

In some countries, U.S. embassy personnel are restricted from visiting particular states or provinces where the risks are considered higher. The State Department calls it the no-double-standard principle.

“We let people know what restrictions we’ve imposed on ourselves,” Bernier-Toth said.

In the past, governments of countries where the State Department has issued travel warnings have complained vociferously, usually out of concerns about their tourism industry. Bernier-Toth said U.S. embassies were given the new rankings ahead of time so they could notify the governments of the impending change.

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