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Sure, the world can be a dangerous place, but we're happy to report progress in some notorious trouble spots. Here, the up-to-the-minute scoop on what countries to avoid, where to tread carefully and where you can kick back and relax.
Is Brazil on your bucket list this year? How about Haiti? We've got the inside scoop on some surprising places you should visit this year, where you should proceed with caution, and which spots to re-think visiting this year altogether until political and social situations calm down a bit.
BrazilHome to natural wonders like the Amazon, beautiful beaches in Ipanema, and thriving cities like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is always a great place to visit, especially in 2014. This year, Brazil hosts to the 2014 FIFA World Cup from June 12-July 13, an event that vacation rentals guru HomeAway says has already brought a 41 percent increase in vacation rentals to the country — check out HomeAway's FIFA World Cup '14 Brazil Guide for more information on things to do and other attractions you shouldn't miss while you're in town for the event. Brazil is also home to some of the world's best Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro — this year they happen from Feb. 28-Mar. 4 — as well as Sao Paulo, Recife, Olinda, Salvador de Bahia, Florianopolis, and in other party-centric cities like Buzios, Porto de Galinhas, Fortaleza, Porto Seguro, and Iguazu Falls. If you're visiting Rio de Janeiro, don't forget to pay a visit to the spectacular Sugarloaf Mountain Aerial Tram, named by Budget Travel as one of the world's most beautiful cable car rides.
To go or not to go: Go, especially to experience Carnival and to get in on the FIFA World Cup fever.
NicaraguaLooking for an unforgettable tropical vacation to a land of beautiful beaches, impressive volcanoes, and rich culture, that's not as crowded and touristy as Costa Rica? Try visiting Nicaragua, an up-in-coming travel destination offering visitors a more authentic Central American experience. This intriguing destination is located less than two hours from Miami, 2.5 hours from Houston, and accessible by direct flights to Managua from major U.S. cities like Miami, Houston, L.A., San Francisco, New York City, New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas and Washington D.C. Once you arrive, hotels, restaurants, and attractions are super-affordable, beaches are largely unspoiled, and you can try your hand at anything from surfing and snorkeling to zip-line canopy tours and sandboarding down the Cerro Negro volcano. What's not to love?
To go or not to go: Go.
United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)There's a lot going on in the U.A.E., from the world's fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi to the expected opening of The Louvre Abu Dhabi in December of 2015 on Saadiyat Island. While this region is typically known for being a glamorous playground for the international rich and famous, the good news is hotels and attractions are actually pretty affordable — a recent search on Trivago shows hotel rooms in Dubai are available starting at $62 USD a night. A one-day pass for unlimited rides on the Dubai metro and bus system costs less than $4 per person — you can pay less than $2 per person to take a joyride on the city's popular Line 8 bus, a scenic trip that'll take you from the Gold Souk through Heritage Village, along the beach on Jumeirah Rd, and past the Burj al-Arab and Wild Wadi before ending near Internet City and the Mall of the Emirates. Visit the Dubai Museum at Al Fahidi Fort for less than $1, experience local history and culture at the Jumeirah Mosque ($2.50), explore one of the oldest Emerati neighborhoods in Bur Dubai and the Bastakiya district with a guide from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultral Understanding ($15), or spend the day at the Dubai Mall Aquarium for from $15 per person. You can also gain free entry into Mushrif Park, home to swimming pools, horseback riding, and camel rides, or treat yourself to a seaside picnic at Jumeirah Public Beach. And that's just in Dubai. The other six Emirates — Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Qaiwain are also worth visiting for their rich history and cultural experiences.
To go or not to go: Go.
MexicoMexico is making quite a comeback in recent months. The basic facts stay the same: Tourists and locals alike are sometimes caught in the crossfire of rival drug cartel battles, or can become the victims of "express kidnappings," when they are held captive until either a ransom is paid or money is withdrawn from a bank account — a scheme similar to the popular "String Trick" in Paris. However, the U.S. Department of State says, "millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day." As of right now, there are no travel advisories in effect for most major tourist areas including Cabo San Lucas and La Paz in southern Baja California, Campeche, San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, San Miguel de Allende and Leon in Guanajuato, Acapuco, Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, Morelia, Lázaro Cardenas, Riviera Nayarit, Oaxaca, Huatulco, Puerto Escondido, Puerbla, Queretaro, Mazatlan, Villahermosa, Tlaxcala, Merida and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, and in Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, and Tulum. Basically, if you stick to major tourist areas or cities that are for the most part not border towns, you'll encounter roughly the same amount of crime you can expect in any other major city. The best part: affordable hotels, attractions, family fun, and beaches are up for T. The Riviera Maya is a great spot for taking the family on vacation due to the variety of budget-friendly all-inclusive resorts, while the Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit areas offer similar perks on the Pacific side.
To go or not to go: Go.
RussiaMoscow. St. Petersburg. Sochi. Three popular places full of Russian art, history, and culture, and now, Sochi will be playing host to the 2014 Winter Olympics. While the country remains a must-see on most travel bucket lists, visiting Russia nowadays can be an adventure steeped in controversy and bureaucratic red tape — Russia actually made our list of complicated countries to visit because of the dizzying, time-consuming procedures U.S. citizens must go through to gain a tourist visa. Russia also received some bad press recently when President Vladimir Putin implied gay people were pedophiles when he was trying to assure visitors to the Sochi Olympics that homosexuals in attendance would be safe — a Washington Post article says Russia's new laws to prohibit "propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices among minors" sparked international concern from those who support equal rights. As of right now the U.S. Department of State has issued a Travel Alert, mainly reminding visitors to the Olympics to remain vigilant during the events and to be aware that such popular games may seem like a nice target for terrorist-related activity, so pay attention to safety updates if you go.
To go or not to go: Go, but be cautious and keep an eye on travel warnings and updates.
HaitiOn last year's To Go or Not to Go list, Haiti was designated as a "don't go." This year, we are thrilled to change the country's status to "Go," citing the island nation's recent foray into international tourism that resulted in new flight service to Port-au-Prince from New York City and Fort Lauderdale via JetBlue. Several major international hotel chains have also returned to Haiti — the Best Western Premier Petion-Ville opened in December 2013, and the Royal Oasis, owned by Occidental Hotel & Resorts, is also a new addition. Marriott International has also started construction in the Port-au-Prince area and is expected to open a new hotel in 2015. The U.S. Department of State still technically has issued a Travel Warning with regards to travel to Haiti, but states that, "Hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Haiti each year, but the poor state of Haiti's emergency response networks should be carefully considered when planning travel," and stresses that travelers should obtain evacuation insurance in case of medical emergency since it may be difficult to access proper medical care in-country. It is also recommended, for safety reasons, that visitors have pre-arranged airport transfers and hotels, or have their hosts meet them directly at the airport, as there were two incidents in 2013 where American tourists were mugged shortly after arriving in Port-au-Prince. The country overall seems to be in the midst of a comeback.
To go or not to go: Go, but plan ahead.
PhilippinesOn Nov. 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines as a Category 5 with winds at 147 miles per hour, causing unimaginable damage and devastation to the region. But the people of the Philippines are as resilient as ever — 10 days after the storm, the country's Department of Tourism issued a statement ensuring travelers that popular destinations like Boracay, Cebu, Bohol, Iloilo, and Bacolod, were still open for business. Visit the out-of-this-world Chocolate Hills in Bohol, see the Banaue Rice Terraces (a 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site), swim among the whale sharks in Donsol, dive at the Tubbataha Reef National Marine in Palawan, check out the nightlife in Manila, or treat yourself to the ultimate beach vacation in Cebu or Boracay. The country's tourism board stresses that their main tourist destinations have remained intact and accessible to visitors despite the storm. If you wish to help with recovery efforts, please consider donating to organizations like the American Red Cross or the Philippine Red Cross.
To go or not to go: Go, but be aware that some areas, especially the Philippine city of Tacloban, are still recovering from storm damage.
IndiaWhile the country is known for its vast history and culture, impressive temples, the iconic Taj Mahal, and for holding a must-see spot on most people's travel bucket lists, in recent years, it's also made news for being a hotbed of violence and aggression towards women. According to this article by The New York Times, visits in 2013 by female travelers declined 35 percent in early 2013 after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December 2012. In 2013, an American tourist and a Swiss tourist also reported being gang-raped, and a British tourist reportedly jumped off her balcony in Agra after feeling threatened by the hotel's owner. Last summer, American student Michaela Cross shared her experiences in a tell-all article about her study abroad trip that resulted in a mental breakdown and diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder upon her return. Cross explains how parts of her trip were "both beautiful and traumatizing," describing how objectified she felt as men stared at, reached for, stalked, and made inappropriate gestures towards her in public — she also describes reaching the end of her rope after two attempted rapes within a two-day period. The reactions to her article sparked a worldwide debate about the behavior of men in India and expressed an urge to treat women in India better — comments on the story itself brought sympathy from other female travelers who had had similar experiences and others who encouraged people to remember that India is just as safe — or risky — as any other country, urging people not to make sweeping generalizations about the entire country based on the experiences of some. Despite such bad press, India is taking measures to crack down on violence and harrassment torwards women. According to a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, the three men responsible for gang-raping the American tourist mentioned earlier were convicted and soon after, the six men who were found guilty of attacking the Swiss tourist were sentenced to life in prison. It's a step in the right direction, but we'd still suggest traveling with a group or at least taking a self-defense course if you decide to go to India anytime soon.
To go or not to go: Go, but exercise extreme caution.
ThailandBeautiful beaches, brilliant culture, and a delicious culinary repertoire are usually what comes to mind when you think of Thailand, but in recent weeks, large political demonstrations and protests have become increasingly unpredictable in the days and weeks leading up to the country's parliamentary elections, set to take place on Feb. 2. Although the activity has been primarily occurring in and around Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the demonstrations have generally been centered around major tourist sites and attractions, popular shopping malls, and other areas where visitors frequent. The U.S. Department of State issued a Travel Alert on Jan. 19, urging travelers to allow for extra time when traveling to and from airports, as protests may cause road closures, and to avoid even peaceful demonstrations, since they tend to become confrontational and could escalate — according to the Travel Alert, gunshots and, in one case, explosions have been reported at several protests since November, and only time will tell what happens when the elections actually do take place next week. Best to wait until things calm down a bit, we say.
To go or not to go: Don't go...yet.
EgyptWe were really hoping this would be the year we were able to upgrade Egypt to "maybe" status. Unfortunately, more than 49 people were killed and 247 were injured during violent clashes marking the third anniversary of the country's recent revolution, so maybe it's best to wait until things settle down again. The U.S. Department of State released an official Travel Alert on Jan. 14 cautioning travelers about ongoing political and social unrest, however it also states that "the security situation in most tourist centers, including Luxor, Aswan, the Luxor-Aswan Nile cruise routes, and Red Sea/Southern and Western Sinai resorts has been calm," stressing that American visitors should remain vigilant and pay attention to developments. If you do travel to Egypt, the U.S. Department of State warns against participating in demonstrations — even seemingly peaceful ones — as you could wind up getting caught in the middle or inadvertently become a target because you are a foreigner. Please check this website for further updates.
To go or not to go: Don't go...yet.
— By Kaeli Conforti
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