Veteran travelers know the U.S. State Department keeps a list of countries where it is dangerous to travel. The list is updated periodically, in response to geopolitical and environmental events around the world. The State Department doesn't pull punches, even for nations that are considered close friends of the U.S. government. For example, Israel is on the list, as is Mexico.
The State Department's "Travel Warnings" list is serious business: An appearance on it curtails visits by U.S. tourists and business travelers, and that can have a big economic impact in countries that rely on tourism as a key source of revenue. From the standpoint of the global tourism industry, America's travel might dwarfs any other nation in the world: In 2009, U.S. spending on travel and tourism abroad generated over $99 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Further expanding the influence of the list, travelers from other nations take U.S. warnings to heart when making decisions about which countries to visit.
It comes as no surprise that travelers are advised to avoid chaotic backwaters like Sudan or Nigeria, but some countries on the Travel Watch list would otherwise be fascinating to visit. Here are ten places Uncle Sam urges Americans to avoid, ranked in order of the degree to which each country's GDP depends upon tourism revenue.
Tourism dollars per year: $11 billion
GDP (Nominal): $29.2 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 37.6%
Though Beirut is one of the most lively and cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East, the government strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon as a result of "the potential for a spontaneous upsurge in violence," adding that travelers are at risk for, among other things, the potential for frequent and intense Israeli retaliatory rocket attacks. Also, beware: "Travelers have also been detained if they have a family name that may be considered of Israeli or Jewish origin."
Tourism dollars per year: $138.1 billion
GDP (Nominal): $1 trillion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 12.7%
Although millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, the country suffers from significant levels of violence and crime, frequently related to drug trafficking. A large portion of this violence occurs along the Mexico/U.S. border, and more than half of all U.S. citizens killed in Mexico in 2009 were killed in the border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. Mexican law enforcement works hard to keep Americans safe, however, so the U.S. Department of State recommends that tourists stay within popular tourist areas.
3. Saudi Arabia
Tourism dollars per year: $44.5 billion
GDP (Nominal): $468 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 9.5%
Though rich in history, Saudi Arabia has an insular culture dominated by the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam. The State Department says terrorist groups have been known to "target western interests, housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas and other facilities where westerners congregate." Americans are urged to "keep a low profile," and "exercise caution while driving, entering or exiting vehicles."
Tourism dollars per year: $2.7 billion
GDP (Nominal): $30.3 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 9%
Though famed for its wildlife, all of Kenya is considered unsafe for American travelers. Worst of all is the area near the Somali and Ethiopian borders, where criminal gangs travel to and from neighboring countries. The American embassy in Kenya encourages all Americans in Kenya to register if they are in the country. That way, if you go missing, the embassy will know where to look.
Tourism dollars per year: $24 billion
GDP (Nominal): $286 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 8.4%
Rich in history and culture, Iran remains off-limits. Americans traveling abroad often need to be worried about gangs and terrorist groups, but in Iran they must worry about attacks by the government. Here, American citizens, especially Iranian-Americans, are at risk of arbitrary arrest, harassment and violence by local officials.
Tourism dollars per year: $933 million
GDP (Nominal): $12.6 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 7.4%
A popular backpacker destination for decades, the State Department now warns against travel to Nepal due to political violence, noting that "protests, demonstrations, and disruptions continue to occur, often without advance notice." Recent demonstrations have resulted in rioting which, in turn, forces businesses and basic transportation to shut down. More common crimes are also common, including violent attacks and muggings.
7. The Philippines
Tourism dollars per year: $11.5 billion
GDP (Nominal): $166.9 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 6.9%
The Philippines just held national elections, which triggered significant violence. That was especially true on the island of Mindanao, where sporadic bombings occur and kidnap-for-ransom gangs are common. The State Department warning suggests that visitors "hire their own security" when traveling to certain areas.
Tourism dollars per year: $138 billion
GDP (Nominal): $2.3 trillion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 6%
Having recently declared a state of emergency due to ongoing wildfires, the Russian Federation is another one of the countries which the United States now urges its citizens to avoid. That is, until the fires are contained. The fires are, thankfully, diminishing now, but extremely high temperatures and high levels of air pollution, made many isolated parts of Russia very unsafe in July and early August.
9. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza
Tourism dollars per year: $12.9 billion
GDP (Nominal): $202 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 6.4%
Fearing threats to both U.S. citizens and interests, the State Department urges travelers to be wary when traveling to Israel and the West Bank, and advises citizens to avoid the Gaza Strip all together. Rockets and mortars are still fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza, sometimes landing 24 miles inside Israel. The West Bank, although significantly safer, remains a site of occasional violence, with incidents occurring unpredictably.
Tourism dollars per year: $12.9 billion
GDP (Nominal): $243.7 billion
Tourism as a percentage of GDP: 5.3%
Narco-terrorism in Colombia, while apparently not as bad as it used to be, remains a threat to U.S. travelers. "American citizens have been the victim of violent crime, including kidnapping and murder," the State Department warns. It's not just tourists who have to worry; government officials in Colombia are required to travel by air between cities, because roads are considered far too risky, especially at night.
Charles B. Stockdale and Michael B. Sauter contributed to this report.