On a recent trip to Honduras, the big news was the current political situation (the ousting of President Zelaya, a move opposed by a vocal minority), which prompted the US State Department to issue a Travel Alert discouraging any unnecessary travel to the country. But during my time in Honduras I saw no signs of trouble, save for some political graffiti near the International Airport, and in fact felt very safe walking around most areas by myself. I also learned that the areas that were briefly affected by the unrest were far from those visited by tourists, yet because of the warnings, tourists were now staying away and the country's economy was suffering as a result.
While the warnings and alerts put out by the State Department should be noted and are designed to help keep Americans safe, just because there is a warning or alert out for a specific place doesn't mean you shouldn't visit or that it is dangerous to do so. You should always try to get a complete picture of the situation from people who have recently been to the country or are currently there, and consider that just because there are problems in one area, it doesn't mean you should avoid an entire country.
Here are six places with State Department travel alerts and warnings that you can still safely visit.
The travel alert: The travel warning for Honduras had been downgraded to an alert, and was just lifted on December 8. It had warned Americans to exercise caution in the country while deferring all non-essential travel to the capital city of Tegucigalpa. The alert had been enough to discourage many people from visiting the whole country, even though few tourists go to Tegucigalpa and the city is several hours away from the areas that most visitors will go to, such as La Ceiba, Roatan, Copan, and Tela.
So why go to Honduras?
Prices in Honduras are lower now than ever. It's easy to find a hostel room for under $10 and most meals are just a few bucks. Utila, one of the bay islands, is known as the cheapest place in the Caribbean to become SCUBA certified. The people of Honduras are friendly, the prices are low, the country is beautiful, and in a place that relies so heavily on tourism for income, tourists have not been the target of any political incidents. While you should always exercise caution, Honduras is no more dangerous than other countries in Central America.
With a diverse landscape ranging from the rainforest of La Mosquitia on the northern coast to the sandy beaches of the Bay Islands to the rolling hills of the coffee plantations and cattle farms of Copan, Honduras is a beautiful country. You can go whitewater rafting, horseback riding, ziplining, scuba diving, snorkeling, tour a coffee plantation, and explore the jungles near La Ceiba. Visit Mayan ruins or walk the cobblestone streets of Copan Ruins and in Roatan, snorkel or dive with dolphins at the Roatan Marine Science Institute.
The travel warning: Colombia hasn't been able to shake the bad reputation it earned in the later years of the 20th century. A long period of civil unrest, kidnapping, violent crime, drug wars, and the dirty deeds of Pablo Escobar made the country a truly dangerous one to visit. But in recent years, President Alvaro Uribe Valez has been cleaning up Colombia, pushing the violent guerillas into the more remote areas of the country. Despite these improvements, the State Department continues to issue a travel warning for Colombia, citing two bombings in Bogota in 2008 and 2009 as examples of the violence that still exists in the country. US officials in Colombia are required to stay only in major cities and are not allowed to use bus transportation or to travel by road at night. Visitors to the country are encouraged to follow the same precautions.
So why go to Colombia?
Though Colombia welcomes more than 2 million people per year, most areas are still very un-touristy. And with a bad reputation to overcome, the Colombian people are some of the friendliest in the region. While there is a threat of danger in certain areas, those who use common sense and avoid areas that are known to be occupied by guerillas will have an enjoyable and safe visit to this beautiful country.
While the odds are greatly in your favor that if you do visit the country and travel by bus into surrounding rural areas, you'll be safe and have an enjoyable trip, if you want to follow the recommendations and just visit major cities and travel by air, you'll still be able to experience quite a bit of the diversity of Colombia. Get acquainted with the country's rich history at the Museo Nacional, Museo del Oro, and Donación Botero in Bogota, stroll past whitewashed colonial buildings in Mompos and Cartagena, and lounge on the beaches of Colombia's Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia. In Colombia you can see beaches, rainforests, deserts and jungles, and you can visit bustling cities or Colonial small towns.
The travel warning: After 25 years of on-and-off violence against the government of Sri Lanka by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which took place mostly in the north and east areas of the country, the government announced the defeat of the rebels. While the US warning states that there have been no indications that US citizens are or were targets of the LTTE, Americans should still be aware of danger while traveling in the Sri Lanka. They are discouraged from riding the bus and from visiting the Northern Province and the northernmost areas of the North Central Province, where remnants of LTTE may still exist, along with uncleared landmines that pose danger to visitors.
So why go to Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka features an amazing amount of diversity, not only its different cultures, but in its landscape as well. From the golden sand beaches of the island's southern end to the rolling green fields of Hill Country, there is so much to explore in Sri Lanka. Despite internal conflicts, Sri Lankans have always welcomed visitors with gracious hospitality and kindness.
Arugam Bay is one of the most popular destinations for tourists, and offers the best surfing in Sri Lanka from April to October. For wildlife viewing, including the chance to spot leopards in their natural habitat, visit Yala National Park on the country's southeast side. Safaris here are a popular activity and offer opportunities for viewing elephants, reptiles and plentiful species of birds, in addition to the jungle cats. Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last area of undisturbed rainforest in Sri Lanka, is also popular for wildlife viewing and eco-tourism. To get completely off the beaten path, head to the sleepy town of Ella in tea plantation country, which only received electricity about 20 years ago.
The travel warning: Travel to Lebanon is legitimately dangerous for two main reasons. The first is that, unlike in some of the other countries on this list, many of the terrorist attacks in Lebanon have been targeted at Americans. And, should something go wrong, the US government may be unable to offer assistance. Still, these factors shouldn't keep you from visiting so long as you check the political situation before you go, stay in contact with the Embassy, and follow the precautions recommended by the State Department travel warning, which includes avoiding demonstrations and large gatherings of Westerners.
So why go to Lebanon?
Despite the dangers, there's a lot to lure tourists to Lebanon, such as several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, historic monuments, Roman ruins, one of the oldest continually-inhabited communities in the world, rugged hiking trails, several ski resorts, and the cosmopolitan city of Beirut. Once called the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut is known for its glamorous nightlife. Beirut is also a popular destination with divers who come to explore some of the dozens of shipwrecked boats submerged offshore.
Combing the history of ancient sites with the promise of modern development, Beirut offers some of the best cuisine in the Middle East, exciting nightlife, and social locals eager to show you around. But there is still some hostility towards foreigners in various pockets of Beirut and particularly in the south of Lebanon where rocket attacks occur and landmines are present. If you go to Lebanon, just exercise common sense and stay alert to stay safe.
The travel alert: The State Department cites the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks as an example of the terrorist violence that could be aimed at Westerners and Americans in India. The alert warns US citizens to avoid places where Westerners are known to congregate, to consider the level of security present when visiting public places, and to avoid areas bordering Pakistan. Since the Mumbai attack,s many large hotels have been beefing up their security, however many people recommend that you instead stay at family-owned guesthouses and smaller hostels which are less likely to be targeted for attacks.
So why go to India?
India is one of the most enigmatic countries in the world. Full of movement, color, emotion and excitement, it's confusing, frenetic, beautiful, and peaceful all at once. It's home to a billion people and has a landscape that ranges from mountains to beaches and from towering high rises to sprawling slums.
Visit the Taj Mahal near Agra, relax on the beaches at Goa, take the ultimate Indian railway journey, look for lions and tigers on safari in the jungles of Kanha National Park, visit Buddhist and Hindu temples, and try to keep up with the pace of life in major cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Though there is some danger, life in India goes on every day, just as it does in the US, London, Madrid and other places that have experienced terrorist attacks. Stay vigilant and you can safely enjoy all the excitement and allure of India.
The travel warning: The State Department warns of the risks involved with traveling to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. While most visitors to Israel won't be going to those places, the country is included in the warning, potentially scaring off many people who don't realize that most areas of Israel are not only beautiful, but thanks to incredibly rigid security, very safe. According to the warning, attacks in Jerusalem in February, March and July are reminders of the ongoing precariousness of the security environment. Americas are told to use caution around crowds and should follow the lead of US Government personnel, who do not use public buses and trains and who avoid all protests. Government officials are also told to stay out of the Old City of Jerusalem after dark every day and on Fridays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
So why go to Israel?
Long considered one of the holiest places, Israel is also a land of rich history. Visit the Christian sights of Galilee, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, discover the ruins at Caesarea, or explore Jewish mysticism at Tsfat. Experience Israel's natural beauty with a float in the Dead Sea or a day of hiking, beach-going and partying in Eilat.
See Israel's future unfold in the modern expansion of Tel Aviv and then journey to the past in Jerusalem, where you can wander through ancient streets and watch as three faiths converge in one place. Whether you pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall or the Al-Aqsa Mosque, you'll discover a beautiful city that is safe and welcoming.
As with any place, when visiting the destinations on this list, you should use common sense, be aware of the potential threats, and monitor the current political situation. Any place can be dangerous and unfortunately, no city is immune to violence. While the State Department information is intended to help Americans stay safe in other countries, the alerts should not necessarily be taken as blanket warnings to avoid an entire country. Situations can change quickly as well. In fact, at the time of writing, the travel alert to Honduras has just been lifted. So don't let a travel warning or alert change your travel plans. Do your research, evaluate the level of danger, and stay safe.
Photo credits: Honduras by Fellowship of the Rich on Flickr, Colombia by Boska on Flickr, Sri Lanka bymuhuns19 on Flickr, Lebanon by whl.travel on Flickr, India by supersam5 on Flickr, Israel by Brian Negin on Flickr