"I have plans to go to Mexico, but … should I?"
This is a question I've been hearing repeatedly since the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico last week.
Mexico is just the latest member of a club that now includes 30 nations around the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Israel, Nepal and the Philippines (a complete list of travel warning countries appears at the end of this column).
So what does it all mean?
According to the State Department, official warnings are issued to describe "long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable" (travel alerts, on the other hand, are issued for short-term events, including natural disasters).
For Mexico, you might say it's a case of a few very bad areas spoiling it for an entire country. Even the State Department acknowledges that millions of people safely visit Mexico each year, including tens of thousands who cross the border every day; however, some of the border towns have gotten increasingly violent.
Indeed, most of the violence -- and it is drug-related -- plays out in border towns like Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales, which the State Department warning says "have experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues."
"Yes," said Houston-based Aleasha Stephens of AllAboutMexico.com, "people are telling us they are cancelling bookings to Mexico." Stephens says the travel warning is just the latest in a series of tourism catastrophes that have plagued the country beginning with the global economic crisis, followed by last year's outbreaks of the H1N1 virus (first called swine flu when it was reported in the Mexican state of Veracruz).
Stephens adds that "Mexico, as a whole, is safe" -- a sentiment echoed by the Mexican Tourism Board's acting director, Carlos Behnsen, who acknowledges trouble at the border, but told us, "The country's tourism destinations remain safe places to visit."
It should be noted though, that earlier this month, 13 people were killed in and around perennial visitors' favorite, Acapulco -- though none of the dead were tourists.
The travel warning is having at least some effect. Steve Bate, who works for a U.S.-based multinational company, said he and other employees received an e-mail last week saying that "all business travel to any location in Mexico must first be approved by a corporate officer." I have also heard at least one report of a company insisting that employees who must visit border towns stay in hotels on the U.S. side.
Not surprisingly, we are seeing good prices on flights to various Mexican resort areas, but that's what happens when you can't fill up the planes; ABC News and others have done stories on worried students cancelling spring break trips to Mexico (though perhaps worried parents were doing the cancelling for them).
So what's a traveler to do? Start by educating yourself.
Read the State Department warnings and alerts. And don't be lulled into complacency just because your destination isn't on the list; the State Department Web site has an invaluable index of country-specific information that provides tourists with all sorts of data, including laws on crime and punishment, especially when they differ from U.S. laws.
For example: a couple of folks recently ran afoul of authorities in Dubai for reportedly sending sexually explicit text messages. Had they looked up Dubai (under United Arab Emirates) on the State Department Web site, they would have seen this: "[Visitors] have been arrested in the past for obscene hand gestures, using inappropriate (foul) language with a police official, and for public displays of affection, such as kissing."
Presumably, the alleged "sexters" didn't know any of this, and as a result -- they're going to jail.
You won't see warnings like that for European nations, but the State Department wants you to know about all dangers, large and small. In Paris, for example, they alert tourists about the Pigalle district, noting that "Many entertainment establishments in this area engage in aggressive marketing and charge well beyond the normal rate for drinks." Good heavens -- overpriced booze!
Before we go any further, let me just say that any country can be dangerous, including the U.S. There are places in America I wouldn't venture into, especially at night, but that's because I use my common sense. So in addition to educating yourself, use normal precautions, anywhere you go.
And be prepared. Every one of the countries listed in the country-specific index has useful contact information for embassies and consulates in case you do get into trouble. And you can register with the State Department to receive e-mails about any special alerts or notices about your destination.
Don't forget to keep a close watch on your important documents while traveling, and have photocopies of your passport with you, as well as with a trusted friend back home.
So should you go? Only you can answer that question. Just make sure you have all the information you need and want to make an educated and intelligent decision. In certain parts of some countries, that information might save you a world of trouble.
Countries included on the U.S. State Department travel warning list (as of this writing) include: Kenya; Haiti; Mexico; Colombia; Eritrea; Central African Republic; Yemen; Iraq; Saudi Arabia; Pakistan; Sudan; Somalia; Mauritania; Chad; Mali; Sri Lanka; Nepal; Algeria; Guinea; Lebanon; Cote d'Ivoire; Philippines; Democratic Republic of Congo; Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; Afghanistan; Burundi; Nigeria; Iran; Uzbekistan; and Georgia. See Travel.State.Gov for more information.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.