AP TRAVEL REAL ID A SPF FILE USA TX
U.S. passports lie on a table in Dallas on May 9, 2017.
Benny Snyder, AP

WASHINGTON – The State Department has revamped its warnings about the risks of traveling to other countries, in an effort to make them easier to understand, officials announced Wednesday.

The department changed the previous phrasing from the previous warnings and alerts, which some travelers found confusing, to a colored-number system of advisories with more explicit descriptions of what yielded the ranking.

Countries are now labeled No. 1 for taking normal precautions, No. 2 for using increased caution, No. 3 urging travelers to reconsider a trip and No. 4 for recommending against travel at that time. Specific threats will be described with summaries such as C for crime, T for terrorism and U for civil unrest.

“It is much more easily understandable,” said Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services at the State Department’s bureau of consular affairs.

“This is the biggest overhaul that we’ve done in a very, very long time,” after some tinkering with language a decade ago, she said.

The purpose of the consular messages is to offer timely advice about destinations and activities overseas. Reviews are done annually for countries ranked No. 1 or 2, and every six months for No. 3 or 4, with more frequent reviews if events warrant.

But travelers were often confused on the difference between warnings and alerts, or between emergency and security messages, Bernier-Toth said.

“Sometimes our various documents were not readily understood," Bernier-Toth said. "Personally, I was tired of explaining the difference between a travel warning and a travel alert, even to some of my colleagues."

Now every country including Antarctica will have a travel advisory with plain-language terms about the risks and threats. But travelers might need some time to become familiar with the new format.

"I think there might be a bit of a learning curve," Bernier-Toth said. 

The No. 4 countries with do-not-travel warnings include Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

The State Department can't prohibit U.S. citizens from traveling to a country, other than a passport restriction for North Korea, which requires a case-by-case waiver. But the advisories echo what the department tells its own workers about travel risks.

For example, Mexico is rated Level 2 overall, with increased caution urged because of crime. But five of the country’s states – Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas – carry “do not travel” warnings because of violent crime and gang activity, with killings, kidnapping and trafficking in drugs and humans. Embassy workers are ordered not to travel in those regions.

"We wanted to make sure that the U.S. traveling public was aware of all those restrictions that we impose on ourselves," Bernier-Toth said.

Vacation destinations in Mexico such as the state of Baja California Sur, which includes Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, and the state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun and Cozumel, are rated Level 2 with cautions to avoid flaunting wealth or while using banking machines.

Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board, said his destination on the Pacific Coast had 16% growth in visitors during 2017 and has been growing since 2010, after recovering from a hurricane.

To keep the area safe and secure, public and private institutions have invested $47 million since August on a five-step plan that includes networking authorities with hotels and airlines to provide a rapid response to emergencies, beefing up surveillance and creating an elite military base scheduled to open by June.

“We have been heavily investing in security,” Esponda said. “Los Cabos is the fastest growing destination in Mexico and we are committed to continue being a safe and secure destination for national and international visitors.”

Cuba, which recently revived diplomatic ties with the U.S., was rated Level 3 because of an investigation of health attacks against diplomatic officials. The assessment of travel risks for that country hasn't changed, but Bernier-Toth cautioned that the reduction in embassy staffing means it will be more difficult to help travelers in an emergency.

"We did a very careful assessment," she said. "We have significantly reduced our staffing at our embassy in Havana."