All governments of self-respecting countries issue official travel recommendations for their citizens. It is usually a mechanical, obligatory, and sovereign act. They do so that future travellers are aware of the risks of an intended destination and to propose measures to reduce these risks. Some countries have developed warning systems or classifications by levels. Many use color-coding to facilitate explanation and understanding to future travellers. Such categorization systems are far from being normalized with each other. Thus, the absence of a standardization of applied methodologies makes their results between different countries incomparable.

Risk accompanies action

Traveling to another country implies taking risks of transport, socio-cultural and biological exposure, among others. Riskier than taking a plane or a train, is walking on the side of the road, driving a car, a jet ski or ATV and not to mention practicing extreme sports such as rafting, snowboarding or mountain climbing. The rush of adrenaline can easily shift from stimulus to perilous when it comes to defying gravity or “free fall”.

Within the socio-cultural risks, rather than worrying about mastering the language, it is necessary to consider that, being new to a place, one does not know the local customs and without intention one, can offend someone during a visit. Locals usually know best about the areas of the city where the underworld operates. A passport can become an opportunity for others in the illegal market. Ideological or religious conflicts are a daily reality in many nations and often, so is terrorism. Crime is a universal risk.

When we talk about exposing ourselves to biology, we do not mean walking among wild cats during a safari, or swimming among reptiles, piranhas, or The Great Whites. We are, most importantly, talking about the risk of infections. One must learn to deal with pests and to avoid the diseases they transmit. Naturally, the visitor’s immune system is not adapted to the microbial flora of the destination. The variation in water or foods is a typical example of this. It is fundamental to follow advice on vaccinations and hygiene. Even the time difference can spoil a vacation.

Perception as a methodology

Most travel advisories issued by governments are based on a combination of more or less technical criteria and a large number of elements, built on subjective perceptions. Along the technical route, we have the official statistics of each country’s internal security situation and reports by the security departments of embassies.

But, how do official entities gather their statistics in different countries? What is not documented, is not reported. A missing person is not the same as a murdered person. It is not the same to apply good practices of transparency with legitimate data, as it is to apply local methods without any verification. Interestingly, countries that receive the most tourists may be doubly penalized, if data management systems between nations do not reflect the proportionality of cases and the number of visitors. If not, enough tourists are received, there will never be significant, enough and comparable rationalization.

On the contrary, the number of subjective conditions considered is very large and, in all cases, they penalize countries worth visiting. The various governments that issue recommendations are very attentive to updates on current events in each country. Yet sometimes mistakes can be easily reproduced. Additionally, news published in local or international media about events affecting tourists or nationals, linked to a certain group of spectacular crimes, end up generating distorted perceptions of the security of many communities.

Another example of subjectivity occurs by emphasizing cases that, common or not, may distort the security image of a place. The need to hire security escorts for excursion buses. The need for excessive public or private security. Having to exercise caution for prohibited “endless lists of places” due to high criminal risk. Exaggerated precautions for tourists can generate misconceptions of security. In general, those that adapt to these measures do so to avoid “bubbles of false security” in isolated hotels or controlled microenvironments.

The ideal traveller, one who abides by the recommendations, also embodies the criteria used to create the classification. For example, a traveller’s home country is often taken into consideration, since socio-culturally and biologically, they may or may not be accustomed to risky situations. But if it is the traveller’s first time abroad, they may be more easily susceptible to unknown events and if they are not clearly warned of these dangers, they will not be prepared to face them.

Few countries are even starting to introduce public policies that seek to regulate the number of tourists they receive annually. Some are establishing “limited access to excess” on certain types of tourism, which target those looking to test their liver, nervous system, or mind using all kinds of substances as tourist. Even ludicrous activities like balconing are becoming illegal.

As a response, some authorities with their system of travel categorizations have an “I told you so” mindset when their citizens return home and are quick to complain about their negative experience in another country. However, this is due to a lack of effective warning on their government’s behalf. In any case, we need a holistic and standardized travel risk warning system, which promotes good travel practices.