State Department updates travel advisories so they're understandable

Exercise Increased Caution While Travelling To India US

The State Department had previously discouraged travel to all or part of the five states' territories but the new warnings are sterner, placing the drug- and crime-plagued states on the same level warning level as Somalia, Yemen, Syria or Afghanistan.

North Korea is also Level Four, with the additional restriction that USA law prohibits American travelers from using their passports there, effectively banning visits. The new rankings are applied to every country in the world, and even Antarctica.

Officials insisted the change was to make advice clearer to United States travelers, but the travel warning system has always been controversial and often offends foreign capitals.

"We let people know what restrictions we've imposed on ourselves", Bernier-Toth said. "These are not political documents".

The Philippines, key USA ally in the Asia-Pacific, is Level Two.

The U.S. State Department has downgraded its travel advisory for Cuba, recommending Americans "reconsider travel" to the Caribbean island.

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In September, the agency stated in a travel warning that, "numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees have been targeted in specific attacks", suffering "significant injuries as a outcome of these attacks".

Other major European allies like Britain, France and Germany are also Level Two, "exercise increased caution", while authoritarian Uzbekistan gets Level One, "exercise usual precautions". The one exception is North Korea, where the State Department has prohibited citizens from using their USA passports to visit without first obtaining a waiver.

The State Department on Wednesday unveiled four tiered categories to warn travelers of potential dangers overseas, using common-sense language ranging from "Exercise normal precaution" to "Do not travel". "These are simply based on our assessment of the security situation, and what we need to tell USA citizens who might be traveling or living in that country".

The State Department insists the rankings are based exclusively on security conditions in a country, but is aware of the possibility for pushback from governments that are unhappy with their ranking.

But each warning is accompanied by a country page on the travel.state.gov website, explaining what specific threats have been identified and why the advice has been given. Many countries in Western Europe, where there have been terrorist attacks in recent years, are listed as Level Two. That process found that members of the public were confused by the current system and unsure how to respond to the various alerts and warnings issued by the State Department.

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