In the mental haze of my third (exam-taking) year of graduate school I developed a brief but intense fascination with the State Department travel website. Certainly it contains a wealth of useful information for travelers, particularly those visiting countries that are not widely visited by foreign tourists. The site has probably guided tens of thousands of college kids and adult tourists through the process of acquiring visas and passports. As far as government websites go (*cough*) it has to be among the best.

However, it is also hilarious. Unintentionally hilarious. Its country-specific reports are full of colorful and in some cases, I assume, overly dramatic warnings about the common use of pistols to resolve minor disputes in the streets of El Salvador, the Bronze Age condition of the roads in Brazil, the dilapidated condition of medical facilities across Africa, and the borderline psychotic driving habits of the Southeast Asians (OK that one is probably fair). I understand why the State Department writes its reports in this manner; by the standards of the average American tourist – picture some relatively wealthy Connecticut suburbanites or Studying Abroad college sophomores – much of the rest of the world must indeed appear remarkably Dangerous and Scary and Dirty and Dilapidated. Conversely, for bohemians who consider themselves to be expert globetrotters beyond any need for advice, the website's stern warnings about dangerous parts of the world may be a helpful reminder that no matter how intrepid you think you are, it's probably best to skip that trek through rural Yemen.

I often wondered, though, how other countries must describe the United States on their own versions of the State Department website. I recall years ago clicking through a few English-speaking nations' sites, which consisted mostly of droll warnings about duties on certain imported goods and the lack of useful public transit outside of a small number of major cities. Today, however, the Washington Post has offered a brief but entertaining rundown of sixteen American cities about which foreign governments warn their citizens. Surely foreigners must look at the State Department's warnings and take occasional offense at the description of their nations as dangerous or dirty or primitive. Or do they? Reading through these foreign warnings as an American, they look…pretty spot on to me. When visitors to Chicago are warned to "Stay away from the West Side and anywhere south of 59th Street" I feel no surge of patriotic pride urging me to respond, but only a sober realization that even Chicago residents largely heed that advice. No matter how much we might want to be upset at the tony French casting aspersions on our cities, it's pretty goddamn hard to argue with the logic inherent in "Avoid Cleveland Heights."

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46 thoughts on “NPF: TRAVEL ADVISORY”

  • Could have simply read "stay away from black neighborhoods." I'd actually like to see some crime statistics involving tourists, too.

    What's more curious is the advice not given:

    Don't by Concert or performance tickets, you will often be scammed out of large delivery fees, even if you print the tickets yourself.

    Don't use ATMs, they exhort enormous fees, especially for international transactions.

    Do not attempt to cash checks at American banks, they will require bribery in the form of check cashing fees.

    Avoid the police, significant danger of being tased, and/or physcially assaulted.

    Don't eat a McRib

  • OliverWendelHolmslice says:

    Be "wary" of Times Square? Has this been updated since the 70s? Times Square is Disneyland with a cop every ten feet on average.

  • The next obvious warning is to cross the street when black or brown people are coming towards you, and if you are like a true Murican, you will by yourself a gun.

  • You've really never been to Cleveland, have you? Cleveland heights is a separate municipality, heavily populated by wealthy Jews,Unitarians, hippies, and the like. It also has a poor, nonwhite population but the only reason for the French to avoid it is that it's just as bougie as home. Ditto Lakewood, where I actually live, safely, all day long, smug in the knowledge of just how good our library really is. Euclid might be a place to avoid, as much for its faceless suburban blandness as any potential crime. No patriotic defense here, you and the Frogs just haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about. Pluse, Cleveland currently has some of the best scandals in the nation- just check out for its story about the museum director.

  • I've actually been to almost all of those cities, and those I haven't I'm generally familiar enough to understand the advice. But I don't understand Richmond-avoid going through "on foot"? I can imagine why, but details would be nice.

    Also, why would you travel all the way from France just to go to Richmond?

  • I avoid Times Square but for different reasons. Nothing there but theater for me. It represents the worst of New York.

    One major reason tourists and everyone should avoid it as much as possible: grifters. Grifters know that gullible/not street smart tourists overrun the place. I can't even sit in McDonald's there without a guy dropping a coin with a card on everyone's tray saying he's deaf and you can buy his tchotchke he just dropped on you, then coming back around. Shit like that. You won't get mugged these days but there are grifters and hustlers up the wazoo and the food is terrible and overpriced.

  • "the borderline psychotic driving habits of the Southeast Asians (OK that one is probably fair)."

    Based on expert opinion and direct observation, it is indeed a fair assessment.

  • I'm with everyone else on Times Square. Yes, there was a time that Times Square was dicey, but those days are long, long gone. Hell, even Alphabet City is now a hipster paradise–I was gobsmacked the last time I went by Tompkins Square Park–that place was definitely a place to avoid back in the day. These days it is hard to imagine what it once was. Kind of miss those gritty horrible days…

    And the warning by the British Foreign Office about El Paso is ridiculous. But I am with Dr. Rock–why would you come all the way from the UK to visit…. El Paso ? Sure, warn people not to wander into Juarez, but El Paso is hardly overrun by cartel members chopping people's heads off.

    All those governments ought to offer the following warning about visits to the United States:
    "Citizens may be armed and unhinged. Do NOT, under any circumstance, knock on a door in ANY neighborhood to ask for directions or help. You may be killed for such an act and your murderer will not only not be prosecuted, but your death will be considered unremarkable and just a price to pay for exercise of Constitutional rights."

  • @ Greg beat me to it. Lakewood (where I, too, reside) is clean and affluent by the standards of Rust Belt cities. Also, I note that their advice for Los Angeles might as well read "All the places that you'll want to visit that aren't Disneyland? Yeah, don't go to any of them."

    It would be interesting to find out how these sites–including our own–collect and evaluate their information before distributing it as gospel to tourists, because based on what I'm reading, it really does sound like variations on "You may meet folk of the dusky hues–beware, for they are prone to rape, and not to be relied upon for decent customer service."

  • Was ready to rail about Lakewood as well, see that Greg and J. Dryden beat me to it. If a European showed up at my door with bags in hand, Cleveland Heights and Lakewood are two of the places I would deliberately go, along with Ohio City for the breweries.

    Germany's advice about 'indecent exposure' is, however, spot on. Of the German tourists I've had the privelege to meet, the number I would seek in the buff is exactly zero. Advantage: USA.

  • Also, does anyone else find it rather amusing that the French map of the US includes absolutely NOTHING to visit in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho, N & S Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, all of NY state outside of NYC, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine (and I am pretty sure they've left out Delaware and Rhode Island, too). I mean, I'm no massive fan of the politics of some of those states, but there are some fantastic things to visit in them. Like, uh, maybe Yellowstone? Glacier Nat'l Park? Badlands?

    And in LA–what is wrong with Santa Monica and Venice Beach? Why WOULD you visit Watts or South Central?

  • It's been my experience that one misses out on a whole lot of awesome shit by avoiding the places one is told to avoid. But then, I live in Detroit, not too far from the center, and frequently leave the house after the close of business, so what the fuck do I know?

  • middle seaman says:

    As a patient in need of urgent care in Morocco, I can report on meeting Dante. Asking the US embassy in the country for a recommendation yielded: Leave the country.

  • Was it Chris Rock who said that you should probably stay away from any neighborhood that ML King Jr. Boulevard ran through?

  • San Francisco used to distribute Visitors Maps. The map was not to scale, and made it look as if it was a short walk from City Hall to Golden Gate Park. The PD eventually realized that these maps accounted for the remarkable number of Asian tourists being relieved of their cameras and wallets in the intervening neighborhoods.

    The maps have since been redone.

  • Maybe it's because of Elizabeth Bonaparte says:

    "Baltimore est considérée comme une ville dangereuse à l’exception du centre-ville."
    I live in a city that the descendants of Roland and Marshal Ney are warned about. Time to strut.

  • And the warning by the British Foreign Office about El Paso is ridiculous.

    I couldn't find a warning about El Paso in the FCO guidance; just an exhortation to avoid non-essential travel to Ciudad Juarez. A bit of extrapolation by the WaPo?

    I really love America, and find most Americans I meet in Europe to be charming. I would, however, absolutely love to solve the mystery of where American Tourists buy their TouristWear. There's something hilariously delightful about couples who don matching hiking outfits (including the whitest tennis shoes known to humankind) to stroll around a city.

  • If anyone has an urge to visit Central and Northern Illinois, outside of Chicago, for it's widely acclaimed scenic beauty, I would like to suggest the aptly named Tom Hanks movie, 'Road to Predation' as your travel guide.

    Except for the bank robberies and old time cars it is spot on.

  • Doesn't matter which American city you visit, they all look about the same any more. Just head out to the suburban strip by the interstate that has:

    Best Buy
    Red Lobster
    Olive Garden
    Taco Bell
    Barnes and Noble
    Office Depot

    You won't be able to tell if you're in Houston, Chicago, St. Louis or Dayton.

  • @Major Kong; "You won't be able to tell if you're in Houston, Chicago, St. Louis or Dayton." Ain't THAT the truth! My family took a road trip in 1973; we left the country of Guam, flew to San Francisco (with a few stops in between), and drove across the country to my father's next duty station in Massachusetts. Back then the highways were extensive, but you never knew what you'd find at any particular exit. It was a great adventure.

  • SE Asian driving, yeah, I guess. The psychotic drivers are sort of predictable: no matter what, they'll try to cut in. What really unnerved me was the cows or, worse, water buffalo stepping in front of my car and then if the brakes squealed giving me that calm You-and-what-army look.

    Nonetheless, all that said, I've never been more freaked out than on the freeways around Montreal. Really, it has to be experienced to be believed. And I grew up in and learned to drive in Boston.

  • West Madison St has been seriously gentrified in the last twenty years. I remember it as skid row. Going to the Stadium was like a scene out of Mad Max.
    It is also where the cops found Richatd Speck hiding ouy after he killed the nurses.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    Nonetheless, all that said, I've never been more freaked out than on the freeways around Montreal.

    That's why they have Je me souviens on the license plates. It does mean 'Get out of my way', doesn't it?

  • I can also confirm that the Cleveland advice is laughable. My little municipality is a few blocks from Cleveland Heights and I wouldn't hesitate to take a walk in the middle of the night anywhere near my home. Hell, I'd take my toddler son with me.

    2011 is the last year I can find the numbers on, but that year, Cleveland Heights had a whopping one murder (2.2/100,000).

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Ah, the old and gritty Times Square…
    Where I used to take visitors, just to watch them sweat.

    Now what makes everyone sweat, are the prices.

    DAMN YOU, DISNEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Keep your 'Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King!"
    Give us back the male and female 'Junkies, Ho's, Cops, and Pimps" and "The Lying Grifters!!!!!"

    There was some weird charm in them thar sleazy shills!!!
    None, in the corporate ones.

  • Interesting how many people here jumped at the chance to defend their cities and neighborhoods against spurious accusations. I was tempted myself. New Orleans has a terrible reputation among even American tourists, who are often warned by hotel concierges to stick to the French Quarter. Meanwhile I live in a deep-ghetto lower 9th ward neighborhood many white Americans wouldn't even drive through and almost never feel threatened.

    Viewed objectively though, the warnings are actually pretty restrained. The level of gun violence Americans take in stride looks much different in countries like Japan, where four shooting A YEAR (for the entire country) is considered a crime wave. The level of gun homicides per 100,000 in the US (3.60) is approximately 16 times that of France (0.22).

  • And of course under no circumstances knock on anyones door:

    "Prosecutors say evidence shows McBride knocked on a locked screen door and did not try to force her way in. The interior front door was open, and Wafer fired through "the closed and locked screen door," said prosecutor Kym Worthy, who declined to discuss details about the investigation."

    These kind of stories get a lot of play abroad. People in Japan are still talking about this one:

    The fact that the shooter was aquitted didn't exactly help matters.

    People all over the civilized world are quite justifiably appalled by this kind of thing. Stands to reason they'd be wary of coming here.

  • "West side of chicago" does not mean Damen. It means Austin, the 8000 blocks.

    And yes, I'm sure many of the French recommendations are wrong, but it's consistent. Look at the US State Dept page, it basically tells Americans not to go anywhere in 90% of the countries on Earth except for hotels "frequented by Westerners." Translation: Don't leave the resort.

    I had no illusions that other countries would be more accurate or less provincial about us.

  • I don't know. I strongly advise anyone coming to Lakewood to avoid the streets named after birds. Other than that, it's a great city in which to do a pub crawl.

  • I found Californian drivers more terrifying than Thai or Cambodian, though maybe that's just me. But South American roads, however: that's where terror lives . Buenos aires rush hour? Yikes.


    This is the medical equivalent to that State Department website. The advice for visiting most countries can be summed up as: "Have your immunizations up-to-date; stay in cities, as their public health infrastructure is better than rural areas; things carried by fleas and mosquitoes can kill you, so take appropriate precautions."

  • I think the French were confused. It should read "Avoid Cleveland". Full stop. Actually, having lived in Warren, how about just avoid NE Ohio all together.
    Wife and I went to Cleveland one labor day weekend- Cleveland Heights was the "highlight" of the trip, but still not worth the airfare if you're coming from France. Left Bank it ain't. Also, if somehow some tourist wandered from Cleveland Heights into East Cleveland? Oof. As for Dayton (where I currently reside) I can just say- avoid as well. The "Wright-Dunbar" historic district is in a pretty dodgy neighborhood, the only thing that is worth seeing is the AF museum, and it's not as if you can live your life without seeing it. I would say that about most of the midwest- seriously, I agree with another post above- blindfold someone, put them in a strip mall by the interstate, and they would have no idea where they were- anywhere from eastern Nebraska to eastern Ohio, North Dakota to Texas. The only give aways would be the accent, the license plates and the density of white folk.

    And while Ohio drivers are pretty good, can anyone explain to me why no one here uses turn signals?

  • I'm glad some folks already hit on the Lakewood and Cleveland Heights thing, because that's just horseshit. Two things I miss in Lakewood: Melt Bar and Grilled and The Diner on Clifton.

    Also, I am from Warren (currently stationed in Colorado Springs, however), and unless you are downtown it isn't a terrible city. We don't have anything exciting going on, but honestly it's not a shit hole. If you want a shit hole in Ohio, look no further than Elyria. That town…lord. It's architecturally and culturally trapped in 1979.

  • Generica…from Sea to Bland Shining Sea.

    The George Carlin rant remains classic.

    I work at a Planning Department Counter, and actually had someone complain that the zoning wouldn't allow fast food drive throughs in one block…ONE BLOCK of a street otherwise lined with (in this case aging and decrepit, so at least semi interesting) Generica.

  • Burning River says:

    Unfortunately, I question the French government's ability to understand the way Ohio municipalities are broken up. I lived in Cleveland Heights for several years, and while there are sections I wouldn't walk through at night, to pretend that its collection of independently owned restaurants, shops and movie theaters are altogether travel advisory-worthy is laughable. Perhaps they were thinking of its neighbor, East Cleveland.

  • Burning River says:

    Unfortunately, I question the French government's ability to understand the way Ohio municipalities are broken up. I lived in Cleveland Heights for several years, and while there are sections I wouldn't walk through at night, to pretend that its collection of independently owned restaurants, shops and movie theaters are altogether travel advisory-worthy is laughable. Perhaps they were thinking of its neighbor, East Cleveland, which is a shit hole.

  • Unless you are in Holy Cross, the 9th ain't no ghetto no more. Its been hipsterfied. The rest of the warning for NOLA seems spot on. I live north of St Charles ave. where tourists are definitely prey

  • Back in 1996, the folks behind the Fielding's travel guides put out a guide to the Dangerous Places. It was comprehensive, complete with advice on hiring mercenary protection, bribing officials, and keeping oneself relatively safe when relevant. One of their contributors actually tried to chat up the Taliban and went on a wild goose chase through the countryside before getting back and realizing that just about everyone in the town square he started from was Taliban. If I remember correctly, Canada had a lot more bank robberies per capita than most countries and bribing an official could get you into trouble.

    The State Department guides make a lot of sense if you realize how limited most Americans are in their knowledge of geography. (Didn't we invade the wrong country maybe ten years ago?) I've found the guides pretty useful in making sure my vaccinations are up to date and whether to bother with mosquito netting. Who wants malaria or dengue fever? The State Department guides are useful also for State Department employees, CIA types using State Department job titles as cover, other government employees and various business people.

    Also, there are good reasons to go to Watts in Los Angeles. That's where the Watts Towers are. If you are a fan of outsider art, go see them. Also, South Central has a lot of good Mexican food, and speaking of good ethnic food, Seattle's MLK Boulevard has lots of good, no pretense restaurants, and it is not particularly dangerous, though I'll suggest watching out for the light rail which runs down the middle of a lot of it.

  • Every city has its more dangerous areas. In fact, even suburbs and rural areas have their trouble spots. The problem you have if you are coming from a different culture, likely one of the reasons you are traveling in the first place, you will not recognize when the area is getting dicey. Of course, sometimes it works in the other direction. I remember being extremely nervous on a business trip when I was jogging around Anaheim, then I started noticing that all the cars were BMWs, Mercedes and other high end types. The area really looked ratty to my NYC eyes, but either it was more upmarket than I thought or full of drug dealers who would keep the petty stuff, like robbing joggers, under control.

    My experience with foreign tourists is that the French and Dutch generally do their homework, but the Germans are just out to have a good time. That means no water in the desert, no clothes while rock climbing and so on. I'll give them credit for being tough and fearless, but …

  • They're off base on Dorchester (where I live and walk at night) as well…we have crime, sure, but random crime against strangers is a rather small part of it. Also- Dorchester is huge, it's not one neighborhood at all- it's like saying '"don't go to Brooklyn".

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