Opinion: Why US travel advisory should not affect your travel plans

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Jan 11, 2018, 11.23 AM(IST) Written By: Madhumita Saha

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath had recently also criticised the practice of gifting visiting dignitaries with replicas of the Taj, saying it did not 'reflect' Indian culture. Photograph:( Others )

Travel advisories issued by the US Department of State carry huge significance. Issued, primarily, to advise and warn American citizens who intend to visit other countries, such advisories end up making global news. Such as it did today. 


National news media took it very seriously as the USDS placed India in Level 2, urging American tourists to 'exercise caution' if they do decide to travel to India. 


The only consolation is the US has placed Pakistan in the Level 3. Beyond this level, there are only countries, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and little-known places in the names of Colima, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Guerrero. 


So, the national pride, though slightly bruised, is not completely compromised. We are better than them. At the end of the day, that is what matters. 


Though primarily designed to ensure the safety of American citizens, the travel advisories of the State Department have come to carry political significance over the years. The advisory is designed in such a way as to make it easily comprehensible, direct and impactful.


But the potency of the list comes from its very simplicity. The colour coded map of the world facilitates an "at a glance" approach. Without knowing so much about any region of the world, one can immediately know which parts will be safe or dangerous for us. The red, yellow, light brown and the creamish white colour codes come as the signifier of safety and danger.   


Unwittingly, in your mind, looking at the picture, you would conjure up a hierarchical structure of dangerous to safest nations. Your vacation plan would decisively and unquestioningly block out those regions of the world which comes in Red, Brown and Yellow. What was meant to be unsafe countries for an American citizen has now become unsafe for you too. But what if the standards of safety are not as universalised as we think it to be. 


What if the brush strokes are too wide, putting entire countries under blanket assumptions based on statistical figures. 


If we trust too much in numbers, the danger is that we may lose trust in humans. 


After all an American citizen, for whatever political reasons, are mostly unsafe outside few countries of western and continental Europe. But an Indian can be much safer. At least, we used to be until we decided to align ourselves too close to Uncle Sam. So, just like one can bask in reflected glory, one can suffer from reflected malice too. 


The travel advisory has warned US citizens of prevalent crime and terrorism in India. Fair enough. Recently, a Swiss couple was beaten up. A heinous act. Both the government and media condemned it in no uncertain terms. African nationals have been treated with much meanness in this country. Robbing and duping of tourists are not uncommon, though we trust in India being incredible and working towards promoting responsible tourism. 


One of the crimes specifically mentioned in the advisory was rape. Yes, that is a problem too. 


Having said that, none of these problems are unique to India. It will be such a loss if stop visiting countries based on what the travel advisories have to say. 


I still remember how my husband and I, as PhD students in the US, consulted the advisory but did not let it influence our decision to visit either Mexico or Colombia. Or, more recently, Jordan. 


These are all level 2 countries like India. 


Colombia was our honeymoon trip. Everybody said no to us visiting Colombia. Infested with drug dealers, H1N1 disease, abduction. The list of negatives was just endless. 


We had the most magnificent tour of our life, ensconced in the beautiful Walled City of Cartagena by the Caribbean Sea. 


Warmth, beauty and hospitality of the people were just exemplary. 


We had a similar experience with Mexico. Known as a country of thugs and criminals, I had an exceptional experience in the city of Cancun. This was 6 months after Colombia. Newly married, I carried most of the jewelry I received as gifts in my wedding in this trip. Soon after landing, I lost the bag on the way to the hotel.


I had no hope of ever getting it back. But I did. In the evening, the driver came to drop off the back at my hotel reception. My faith in humanity was restored. 


In the US instead, in Philadelphia where I lived, I had terrible experiences of men stalking me. At the heart of Washington DC, I was scared to death by a bunch of rowdies. But NYC was always most charming-as safe as home. 


Let the State Department come out with travel advisories, but let it not clip your wings. The world is a beautiful place. Kabul is my friend's favourite city followed by London. 


Does it make sense? No. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).


Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.