Monday, September 28, 2015

Visiting Travel Warnings List Countries - Letter to International Travel News - October 2015

Jeff Carrier of Naples, Florida, had the following request for subscribers (Jan. ’15, pg. 68): “I would like input from readers who have traveled recently to any of the nearly 40 countries that are pretty much always on the US State Department’s ‘Travel Warnings’ list, which appears monthly in ITN. How did they do it and what were their experiences?” A number of responses were printed in last month’s issue. The remainder appear below.

Note that, due to the unstable nature of countries on the warnings list and recent changes to the list, itself, certain countries mentioned below may be more dangerous or less dangerous than when these travelers visited them. For up-to-date information, visit For the current Travel Warnings list, see page 62 in this issue.

Some countries that do not make the Travel Warnings list still earn precautionary notes from the State Department. Visit, click on “Country Information,” type a country’s name in the search bar and, on the page that comes up, click on “Safety and Security.”

To finish my quest to visit every UN member state, which I finally did in 2014, I had to visit all of the countries on the Travel Warnings list. Most of my traveling to those countries took place in the last six years, with the majority of the trips taking place in 2013.
Jeff Carrier asked travelers to any of these countries how they did it and what their experiences were. Here are my answers.

First, I contacted tour operators who advertised in ITN who I had either traveled with in the past or who had been highly recommended by fellow travelers. I provided them with the list of countries I still needed to visit and obtained their proposed itineraries.
Second, I asked each about their experiences with local agents in the countries I wanted to visit.

Third, I selected the tour operator who had the longest history with a local agent, that is, the most trips scheduled between them. This step removed several candidates who didn’t have close relationships with agents in the countries I wanted to visit.
 My theory is that a tour operator and a local agent each will not be willing to risk ruining their reputation or even their relationship if they, together, aren’t sure they can arrange a safe visit for a traveler. I want the feeling that the operator and their local agent are confident they are going to keep me safe.

• I visited many of the countries on the list with groups. For example, in 2009 I traveled with Advantage Travel & Tours (Poway, CA; 800/882-2098) to IRAQ (Baghdad and the area of ancient Babylon and into Kurdistan), Jordan [not on the Travel Warnings list]SYRIA and LEBANON. It was a fantastic experience with great local guides.

• Several of the “solo” visits that I made to countries were arranged by Klaus Billep of Universal Travel System (Santa Monica, CA; 310/393-0261, In several of the African countries he arranged to have me visit in 2013, I was escorted by Herb Gobbles, a German who is well known by the locals. Klaus monitored our trip and adjusted our schedule when fighting broke out in MALI.

UTS arranged solo trips to Eritrea, Central African Republic, Libya, Djibouti, Somalia, Chad, Sinai [in Egypt, not on the warning list] and other “safer” destinations. The local guides were fantastic, guiding me away from trouble spots and arranging private tours of sites like Leptis Magna and Sabratha (both in Libya) and keeping me safe when fighting broke out in Tripoli my last night in the country.

The local agents in these countries also had me stay in nondescript hotels where there weren’t many Westerners, and I rode in unmarked vehicles with dark windows.
Later in 2013 I started a tour with a UTS group but deviated to visit YEMEN. My travel to Yemen’s Socotra Island was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The local guide and driver were great.

My big surprise was that the only other tourists I met in Socotra were two young ladies from Washington, DC, who told me the island was a “dark secret” for female travelers who worked for US agencies because it was (then) considered very safe and an interesting place to visit.

For the record, I think the State Department’s Travel Warnings are aimed at backpackers who like to hitchhike around countries without having made reservations in advance. There are many people who like to travel that way. At 80 years old, I am not one of them.

I was married in Canada and worked six years for a Canadian company, so, to help ensure my safety in several of these countries, I wore a Canadian flag pin and in public talked about my life in Canada rather than stories about the US.

The difficult part of traveling to these places was obtaining visas. It took me 10 years before I was able to visit Libya, and then it was only on a work visa. Eritrea sat on my 2012 request before granting me a visa in 2013. In each case, it was the local agent’s influence that helped get my visa granted.

My recommendation is to visit one of these countries if the trip is arranged by a tour operator like Advantage Travel & Tours or Universal Travel System. If the operator doesn’t think it’s safe to travel to a particular place, they won’t arrange the trip. 

And if their local agent feels he or she can arrange a safe visit, go for it. You will experience outstanding adventure with privately guided tours of fabulous sites. 

You also will get more personal interaction with the local people. The result will be a better understanding of the root cause of the trouble that led a country to be put on the US State Department’s Travel Warnings list. 

In both Eritrea and Libya, for example, the local guide invited me to his home after the paid-for tour was finished and talked at great length about the cause of the trouble in his country, and in each case it was somewhat different than what had been reported in the media.
You’ll also learn that some areas are safer than others. And you’ll see that there is still normal, day-to-day life for the inhabitants in many parts of the country. 

Jeff, go for it!

Ed Reynolds
Woodland Hills, CA

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