What they really think: America seen through travel warnings

If your friends and allies won’t tell you what they really think, check their travel advisories.

Uruguay and Venezuela aren’t the only countries to have issued travel warnings about the risk of gun violence in America — though their language citing “hate crimes” and the “supremacist elite” in Washington was head-turning in the wake of deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

Close US allies have long warned their citizens about the risks of exploring the United States. And while most online advisories rank the US as safe to visit, many also make mention of domestic mass shootings, typically categorized as terrorism — and also warn about the astronomical cost of American health care for visitors whom misfortune befalls.

Sometimes politically pointed, but more often simply pragmatic, each country’s travel advisories are usually published only in the local language. And because they’re designed to keep their own citizens out of trouble, the frankness with which such documents review US security, health, local law and customs can offer a fascinating portrait of America — which Americans themselves may struggle to recognize.

Warnings about terrorism and mass shootings

Canada, which is right up there alongside the US in terms of gun ownership, advises its citizens to “take normal security precautions” in the US, and notes that “incidents of mass shooting occur, but account for a small percentage of homicide deaths in the country.” With 34 guns for every 100 people, Canada ranks fifth in the world for gun ownership according to the Small Arms Survey. The US is first, with 120 firearms per 100 people.

“The likelihood of a tourist being a victim of such a (mass shooting) incident is low,” adds Canada. Although US gun homicide rates far outpace those of fellow wealthy countries, the likelihood of any individual being a victim of such an incident remains statistically low, though no less horrifying.

New Zealand, itself the recent victim of a large-scale mass shooting, offers the most detailed travel advisory — if also somewhat out of date, having been last reviewed in November 2018. The country’s website calls for “increased caution in the United States due to threat of terrorism” and reminds New Zealanders that the US has suffered multiple “politically motivated” attacks.

“Active shooter incidents occur from time to time in the United States,” the advisory adds in a “Crime” section. It does not gloss over America’s bloody recent history of mass shootings, listing a May 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas; a November 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and October 2017’s concert shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada — the deadliest in modern US history.

Ireland’s short travel advisory notes simply that while terror and extremist violence has increased worldwide, the US in particular “has also witnessed a number of mass shootings in recent years.” Meanwhile, Italy’s travel profile for the United States says that terror attacks remain a threat in large cities, and warns that “serious firearm incidents” sometimes occur in smaller communities as well.

Both New Zealand and Italy defer to US expertise in mass shootings, advising travelers to consult the US Department of Homeland Security website for tips on what to do in such an attack.

In contrast, the United Kingdom’s travel advisory politely eschews mention of potential mass shootings, though it describes terrorists as “very likely” to attempt attacks in the US, inspired by foreign terror groups “including Daesh and al Qaeda.”

Be aware: Americans own guns

While close ally Japan rates the US as a safe place to visit, it did describe the US as a “gun society” in an online notice issued immediately after the Dayton, Ohio, shooting this weekend. The message, signed by Japan’s Consulate General in Detroit, warned Japanese citizens to be aware of potential gun violence “everywhere” in the US.

Germany points out that Americans face few obstacles to obtains guns. Both mass shootings and terrorism pose potential risks when traveling in the US, its advisory says, adding that it is “easy” to gain possession of firearms and therefore more common to see shootings and sporadic attacks. Germany itself has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, after passing stringent gun ownership regulations in the wake of shootings in 2003 and 2009.

In the French advisory’s “Culture” section, the diplomatic service warns French visitors that “carrying firearms is authorized and common” in several US states. “Visitors must therefore, in all circumstances, keep their calm and sang-froid.”

The cost of US medical care

While medical care in the US is “very good,” Canada reminds citizens that “treatment costs are expensive.”

“Medical treatment is expensive and there are no special arrangements for British visitors,” the UK said. “Some hospitals may ask non-US residents to pay a deposit or ‘good faith’ payment on admittance.”

Germany and France echo this warning, emphasizing American hospital prices and urging travelers to buy special health and repatriation insurance before visiting.

Toplessness and other cultural differences

Germany, which says breastfeeding in public is legal in all US states, cautions German mothers to “refrain from that practice in restaurants and bars, or in less liberal areas,” it says. It similarly warns against topless beachgoing, even for little children.

France, too, cannot help but note American prudishness in its travel advisory, telling travelers that topless swimwear is “forbidden” in the United States for adults and children.

In another cultural warning, the Italian advisory reminds travelers that the late nights they might be used to at home could get them into trouble in US cities, where it says violent crimes are on the rise, particularly in the evening.

“Work and social life end earlier in the United States than it does in Italy, and city centers can empty out between 6 pm and 7 pm,” claims the Foreign Affairs Ministry.


Uruguay and Venezuela are not the only countries to describe racism in America as concrete danger to travelers. While this week’s El Paso shooter appeared to target Hispanic people, previous years’ unrest over police killings of African-Americans prompted the Bahamas in 2016 to update vacation-goers on “tensions in some American cities over shootings of young black males by police officers.”

“We wish to advise all Bahamians traveling to the US but especially to the affected cities to exercise appropriate caution generally,” it warned.

“In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police.”

Crime and some surprisingly specific areas of concern

France’s travel security warning focuses in large part on natural disasters, it does list 13 urban areas in the US where French travelers should keep their wits about them, including Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury; New York’s Central Park (at night); downtown Houston and Atlanta; roughly a dozen neighborhoods in Chicago; and parts of Los Angeles, among others.

Italy does not have a full cities-to-beware list, but it does specifically warn about San Francisco for car burglary; Florida for irritating “red algae;” and New York City’s Times Square for counterfeit electronics.

And while not exactly a crime, the UK’s otherwise bland advisory pays special attention to Florida gas stations “notoriously near to Orlando International Airport” for allegedly gouging tourists on fuel prices.

Always remember context

Of course, the diplomatic context around some travel warnings can sometimes add clear political overtones: It was just after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 that Turkey — itself the subject of multiple travel warnings by the US — issued an advisory about political tensions and xenophobia, noting that political protests in Portland, Oregon, had turned violent.

Amid new trade tensions in June, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a general travel advisory citing “shootings, robberies and thefts” as risks to tourists. And Venezuela’s own fiery warning this week came just as the US targeted the embattled Caracas government with broad sanctions.

US travel advisories, naturally, also carry political messaging or can end up prompting retaliatory warnings. The US State Department currently warns Americans to “exercise increased caution” when traveling to China and to reconsider travel to Turkey. It also instructs Americans to entirely avoid Venezuela.

CNN’s Maddox McKibben-Greene, and Maria Ramirez Uribe contributed to this report