Safe or Not? The Truth About 10 Controversial Places

ParisSacre Coeur in Paris FranceFamous quay of Seine in Paris with trees and buildings
Summer Caribbean beach and tropical sea in Haitidisplay of local art and artists in labadee haitiCaribbean beach and tropical sea in Haiti
GreeceAcropolis Parthenon columns in Athens Greece.Santorini, Greece
Safari in KenyaKenya roadA group of rare reticulated giraffes watch with curiosity.
The Siwa Oasis in EgyptEGYPT: Felluca, typical egyptian boat. Captured on Nile. Luxor, Egypt.Panorama of the Sphinx and the great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt
IsraelPort of Acre, IsraelJerusalem, Israel
Cuba houses in downtown La Havana.Panorama of Playa Esmeralda in Holguin, CubaBeautiful Havana city, the capital of Cuba.
View of Sto. Domingo, one of the most beautiful colonial churches in Mexico.Tulum, MexicoCabo San Lucas, Mexico
Bali water temple on lake in IndonesiaImage of giant floating arms at Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, Bali, Indonesia.Indonesia
Woman in forrest
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Although we consider Paris (with brag-worthy sites like Sacre Coeur) to be one of the safest cities in the world, travelers should bear in mind that the French government is still operating under a state of emergency at least through the end of May. That means borders are more tightly monitored, warrantless searches are allowed, and police have placed more than 400 people under house arrest.

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The U.S. State Department urges travelers to Paris to be vigilant on public transportation systems, at high-profile sporting events, restaurants, and other tourist destinations. The State Department also suggests you enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and to make it easier to locate you in an emergency. (Note: We recommend STEP to all travelers, and you can learn more about the program in “One 'STEP' Every American Can Take to Stay Safe Overseas.”)

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IS HAITI SAFE? Political tensions and the deadly 2010 earthquake (which took the lives of more than 200,000 Haitians and led to health crises such as a cholera outbreak) have given this Caribbean nation, the poorest in the region, a bad rap. But post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, including American hotel chains, and the election of an interim president on February 14 allow us to say for the first time in years: Yes, Haiti can be a safe travel destination as long as you take necessary precautions.


The U.S. State Department advises travelers to Haiti to exercise caution and stay up-to-date on political tensions and security issues. informed about conditions in Haiti by following the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince and the American Citizens Services (ACS) on Twitter and Facebook. The new interim president’s term is only 120 days, and there’s no way of knowing just yet whether political rallies or traffic restrictions imposed by security authorities will affect a visit.

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Haiti has a reputation for high crime that is actually unwarranted: Crime rates here are lower than in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, which both enjoy flourishing tourism industries. Given the political uncertainty here, we suggest you book your travel with a U.S.-based hotel chain such as Marriott or Best Western.


IS GREECE SAFE? We chose Greece as our no. 5 “Where to Go in 2016” destination because we are completely confident that a trip here is not only affordable but world-class in every way: Yes, Greece is safe. However, we get asked all the time how Greece’s ongoing economic recession and the arrival of refugees and migrants from Syria and elsewhere may affect the travel experience here. The State Department advises that work stoppages, demonstrations, and marches are regular fixtures in Athens and Thessaloniki; travelers should be aware of demonstrations and stay away from them, as even initially peaceful demonstrations have the potential to turn violent.

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The Acropolis of Athens is one of the sites every traveler must see when visiting Greece. But remember that the State Department advises U.S. travelers to Greece to carry passports at all times: Police here may detain you for questioning if you are not carrying a passport. Also, U.S. citizens of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern descent may be at risk of being perceived as foreign migrants and detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens.


Greece’s long coastline and many islands (such as Santorini, pictured here) have made it a desirable travel destination for years, but most recently it's also become a destination for migrants and refugees from Syria and other areas in the region. The islands of Kos and Lesvos have been especially overburdened, but the situation has improved since the summer of 2015 thanks to the work of local and foreign volunteers.


IS KENYA SAFE? While thousands of Americans safely visit Kenya each year for some of the best wildlife-viewing in Africa, the U.S. State Department warns that there is a potential threat of violent crime and terrorist acts such as bombings, kidnappings, and attacks on planes and ships in Nairobi, along the coast, and in the northeastern region. Attacks by Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab have included public transportation, nightclubs, shopping areas, and a Mombasa resort frequented by Westerners. Our verdict: Much of Kenya is currently unsafe and you should only visit on a high-quality escorted tour.

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U.S. government personnel are prohibited from visiting much of Kenya, and travelers should follow the same guidelines: Avoid the Likoni ferry in Mombasa, the Old Town in Mombasa after dark, the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh, the area of Kilifi County from Malindi north, the coastal counties of Tana River and Lamu, and northeastern Kenya, including the cities of El Wak, Wajir, Garissa, Mandera, and Liboi. For this reason, we believe that only a quality escorted tour, such as those arranged by Friendly Planet, can allow you to see Kenya’s considerable natural beauty and wildlife with the highest level of security possible.

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If you go to Kenya (and we certainly hope you make it there one day to see the giraffes and other wildlife), follow the advice of tour guides and hosts, and stay abreast of local news before and during your trip. Carry your passport and visa at all times: U.S. citizens of Somali descent are especially at risk of being mistaken for refugees and questioned by authorities.

Peter Grunert/Lonely Planet

IS EGYPT SAFE? Political unrest rocked Egypt in 2011 and inspired some people to delay travel plans to the north African nation. Since then, jihadist terrorist attacks, including those aimed at high-level government officials and diplomatic building, have become a threat. But sites such as the pyramids and Great Sphinx at Luxor, museums and historical sites in Cairo, and the beautiful Lower Nile (now enjoying a resurgence in river cruises, such as those offered by Avalon Waterways) maintain a heavy security presence and inspire waves of visitors each year: Egypt is safe, as long as you stick to well-trod travel sites such as Cairo and Luxor.

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When in Egypt, the U.S. State Department does suggest that you stay away from public demonstrations, which can be unpredictable and sometimes turn violent. (Unauthorized demonstrations of more than 10 people are illegal and can often lead to clashes between protesters and police.) Crime levels in Cairo are moderate and comparable to other popular cities, with the most common offenses including pickpocketing and purse-snatching. In the western desert and Sinai, ongoing operations against terrorist groups make travel unadvisable.

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Visiting Egypt with an experienced tour company such as Intrepid Travel, or staying in a major hotel whose concierge regularly monitors the potential for unrest, is your best bet.  As with other destinations prone to demonstration and heavy security, carry your passport at all times.


IS ISRAEL SAFE? With some of the world's holiest sites, sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, Israel is a one-of-a-kind destination where, from the ancient streets of Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and Jaffa (pictured here), the past rubs elbows with the present like no other. Unfortunately, all that elbow-rubbing comes with a downside, and Israel has been the scene of religious tension, terrorist attacks, and flat-out war over the course of its 60+ years. Most of Israel is safe, but the U.S. Department of State strongly warns Americans not to visit the Gaza Strip and most areas of the West Bank (other than Jericho and Bethlehem), due to ongoing tensions and risks that can range from rock-throwing to rocket fire.

Courtesy knewk720/myBudgetTravel

Major Israeli cities such as Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Acre (pictured here) are as safe as any in the world, and Jerusalem, as long as you observe some common-sense rules, is an unforgettable experience that shouldn't be missed. While in Jerusalem, avoid street protests and approach religious sites with caution on holy days, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays because of potential congestion and security restrictions.


As with any troubled region, you will feel most supported and informed if you travel to Israel with an experienced tour operator and stay in touch with the staff at your hotel about the potential for political and religious demonstrations. Here, the unforgettable Tower of David, Jerusalem.


IS CUBA SAFE? Because of the U.S.’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba, including charter flights to colorful Havana, commercial flights coming later this year, and a thriving people-to-people package tour industry, we chose Cuba as our no. 3 “Where to Go in 2016” destination. Budget Travelers were thrilled with the news and have been viewing our video “A Gorgeous Day in the Life of Cuba” for inspiration.  But given the island’s decades of off-limits status, we still get asked if travel to the communist-ruled island is safe for Americans: Yes, Cuba is safe.

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While accurate crime statistics are not available from Cuba yet, the U.S. State Department notes that the “security environment in Cuba is relatively stable and characterized by a strong military and police presence throughout the country" (including beautiful Playa Esmeralda, pictured here). It cautions visitors to be alert for pickpocketing, purse-snatching, and burglaries, but traveling with a licensed people-to-people tour guide such as Friendly Planet and Intrepid Travel will help minimize any danger.


The most complex component of our recommendation of Cuba as a safe travel destination is the fact that under the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations, most Americans are still precluded from visiting Cuba unless they meet one of a dozen categories of authorized travel, which include family visits, journalistic activity, professional research and professional meetings, and educational activities (this is the category under which people-to-people tours qualify). So, although commercial flights and ferry service are on the way, you technically can’t simply “vacation” in Cuba yet.

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IS MEXICO SAFE? Millions of U.S. citizens visit Mexico safely each year, with more than 150,000 American crossing the border each day, but as the U.S. State Department points out, U.S. citizens have been the victims of drug-related violent crime by organized criminal groups. The Mexican government devotes significant resources to protecting popular tourist destinations, and criminal groups have not targeted resort areas and tourist destination. Our verdict: Mexico is safe as long as you stick to major cities and resort towns. (Pictured here, the colonial-era Santo Domingo church in Mexico City.)

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It's best to stick to major cities such as Mexico City and popular resort areas such as Los Cabos and destinations in Quintana Roo such as Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, and Tulum, where the crime rate can actually be lower than in some U.S. cities.


Adventurous travelers who want to get off the beaten path in Mexico should spend some time at reviewing the warnings about visiting border regions and some Mexican states (including Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Sonora, Chihuahua, and others) that have seen heavy drug-trafficking activity, such as daytime gun battles, carjackings, and kidnappings (including so-called “express” kidnappings, in which victims are held until they offer up an ATM card and PIN). Regardless of where you travel in Mexico, be prepared for the same risks you might encountering when visiting any American city.


IS INDONESIA SAFE? It should be no surprise that of all the popular travel destinations we consider controversial this year, Indonesia is the most complicated: The nation is geographically huge and culturally diverse, resisting easy categorization. We routinely recommend Indonesia to travelers for perfect islands such as Bali (pictured here), the decidedly stylish city of Jakarta, and the country’s gloriously unique orangutans. We recommend Indonesia as one of our “Where to Go in 2016” destinations. But travel to the immense archipelago remains controversial because of the serious forest fires that raged through much of 2015 and the ongoing threat of terrorism. The forest fires, as serious as they were in terms of carbon emissions, did not significantly affect popular travel sites: Indonesia is safe if you’re content to “play tourist” and stick to Jakarta, Bali, and other on-the-beaten-path destinations.


While even the beautiful island of Bali was rocked by a terrorist attack on civilians in the nightclub district in 2002 and car bombings in 2005, more recent Indonesian terrorist targets have included police stations and officers in Surakarta, Central Java, and Sulawesi. Regions such as Central Sulawesi and Papua are home to religious and ethnic separatist movements and sometimes prone to violence.

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We hope that American traveling anywhere in the world will make a special effort to respect local customs and traditions, but in Indonesia U.S. citizens have actually been threatened or even attacked for accusing locals of theft and complaining about a local mosque’s morning call to prayer.. Show respect, and, as with any region prone to demonstrations, don’t treat protests and marches as a tourist attraction: Put your phone away and clear out.


ARE ZIKA-PRONE DESTINATIONS SAFE? As Budget Travel’s senior editor, Jamie Beckman, reported recently in “What Travelers Should Know About the Zika Virus,” some popular tropical vacation destinations are experiencing outbreaks of the mosquito-borne virus, including Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, and Puerto Rico, with the virus expected to spread. But Zika is of primary concern to pregnant women, especially those in the first trimester, because of the virus’s threat to fetal development: Zika-prone destinations are safe unless you are pregnant. But do take anti-mosquito precautions such as a DEET-based bug repellant, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and permethrin-permeated mosquito netting. If you’re pregnant, consider postponing your trip. For up-to-date advisories about the Zika virus, visit


To go or not to go: That is the question. We deliver the definitive thumbs-up (or down) on 10 desirable yet controversial travel spots.

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