Smartraveller is Mostly Ridiculous

Smartraveller is Mostly Ridiculous

I find to be very useful when looking ahead at visa and entry requirements for countries I plan on travelling to.

But I have had the growing suspicion that the 'Overall Advice Levels' for country-wide travel recommendations are becoming meaningless and, at times, farcical.

So I thought I would have a look. I headed over HERE (as of 12/6/23), where I can see all the countries for which smartraveller gives advice, then filtered them in descending order of 'Overall Advice Level'.

From this, I made some tables:

Then looking through this list, a few countries' rankings confused me a little bit or piqued my interest, so I noted them with the blue boxes.

A Walk in the Light Green:

Overall, the list is fairly intuitive. Western democracies make up much of the Green. The Eastern European block is trending more Green. And a couple of shining lights from Africa (Rwanda, Botswana, Seychelles, Namibia) have made the fold. And it is nice to see Uruguay in the Green, a spot it absolutely deserves.

There are a couple of peculiar guests on the Green list:

  • Qatar - wouldn't want to be a migrant worker or victim of sexual assault there...
"Don't use or carry illegal drugs. Penalties for drug offences include long jail terms. Authorities can detain and deport you if you carry medication to treat HIV and hepatitis. This can also happen if you test positive for either illness. Sex outside of marriage is illegal. If you're the victim of a sexual assault, authorities may arrest, detain or prosecute you for adultery. If you're sexually assaulted in Qatar, ask us for consular help and advice on available support services immediately. Sexual Assault Service"
  • Brunei Darussalam - wouldn't want to be a free-thinker or gay (or accidentally eat food at the wrong time) there...
"Brunei is a Muslim country and has strict religious laws. These include laws around fasting during Ramadan, preaching other religions, and Muslim religious observance. Know and follow these laws. Brunei's Sharia (Syariah) Penal Code took full effect in April 2019. It applies to everyone, including foreigners and non-Muslims. Some crimes, including blasphemy, sodomy and adultery, attract the death penalty under sharia law. Understand the law before you travel."
  • Cambodia - Good grief, they've put this astoundingly poor and corrupt country is in the same category as Switzerland...

Side Note: On What is 'Normal'

I think part of my gripe here comes from what is considered 'normal safety precautions'. Because if there is no agreed upon standard for 'normal', then the advice to 'exercise a high degree of caution' is meaningless.

Normally, for those of us with functioning critical faculties, 'normal safety precautions' would not have us walking down dark alleys alone at night - even in Switzerland! That would be 'normal precautions', and would rightly not preclude Switzerland from the Green.

My issue with smartraveller is that some of these countries in the Green have safety issues that are so clearly not in the realm of what the average reasonable person would consider as 'normal'.

And some examples of the converse become more silly as we move into the Yellow.

A Jaundiced View of the World - In to the Yellow:

This is where smartraveller starts to lose the plot.

  • Mexico - well obviously you are going to be wrapped up in a Narco war...
"We advise: Exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico overall due to high levels of violent crime. Higher levels apply in some areas."

Realistically, tourists to Mexico will visit tourist areas, where they will get along just fine by observing 'normal safety precautions'. Simply avoiding the Narco economy in its entirety just about precludes you from being involved in narco-related crime. And simply tagging on 'higher levels apply in some areas' is not good enough to distinguish Yellow Mexico from Green Qatar; or from Green New Zealand for that matter - in so far as a normal person need only exercise 'normal safety precautions' to remain safe and that....higher levels of crime always apply in some areas...

"We advise: Exercise a high degree of caution in the UK/Sweden/Germany/Belgium/France due to the threat of terrorism."

Meanwhile, Qatar gets to remain in the Green with "There have been several terrorist attacks in the Gulf region in recent years. These have occurred at places visited by foreigners. Take official warnings seriously."

And Green Cambodia can simply say: "Terrorism is a threat worldwide."

I would also note that Sweden is not exactly an isolated island of terror:

Denmark is quite close by and warns: "Denmark's terror threat level is 'significant'. Terrorists are likely to plan attacks. Be alert to possible threats, especially in public places." - yet it remains in the Green...

Norway, Finland? - no worries... All Green.

My issue is not that there is no risk of terrorism, just that it does not follow to rank one country Green and another Yellow when both admit that "terrorism could happen". Even when they border each other. By a road. Just a short drive...

Which in turn just makes me (as someone who is lucky to be quite widely travelled) more suspicious of the authority of smartraveller to opine on safety issues at all.

There will almost certainly be some well intentioned Australian holiday-makers who are dissuaded from even considering Sweden as an option because of this.

Closing out my Yellow section:

  • Anyone who has been to Paraguay can tell you that 'normal safety precautions' will have you enjoying a wonderful up and coming (stable, democratic) South American country. It should not be in the Yellow - but the random schizophrenic score sheet by which smartraveller is adjudicating these decisions is opaque to me.
  • And one wonders if the countries in which it is within the realm of 'normal' to sleep behind gates, guns and barbed wire (South Africa, Brazil, Papua New Guinea) are the appropriate cohort with which to lump the UK, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and France...

An Ode to the Orange:

Just a quick interlude here.

I think this is a clear point in which smartraveller is embarassing itself.

I note that the last updated date for El Salvador's advisory page was 6th August, 2022. This needs to be updated. Their government has, admittedly with a heavy hand, embarked on an impressive crackdown on crime in the country leading to plummeting murder rates - essentially all of which were gang related in the first place.

I have recently spent a week at the beach in El Salvador, observed 'normal safety precautions', and had a great time.

Yes, survivorship and availability bias, I know...

It is embarrassing that the Australian Government ranks El Salvador, a rapidly rising digital nomad hotspot, with crashing crime rates, that is economically open, as Orange-coloured 'reconsider your need to travel' while Qatar remains in the Green; a place where you can be arrested as an adulterer for having the audacity to be raped...

Rant over.

Deep in to the Red:

While I took a few issues with some of Green countries, there is probably less argument in what should constitute Red 'Do not travel' for the average traveller.

Summary: War zones and failed states.

Although I understand there are some heading to Russia and Belarus for travel purposes, it just doesn't seem worth the risk of becoming an arbitrarily imprisoned bargaining chip against Australia's next shipment of military hardware to Ukraine.

Do I really want to be imprisoned for years in Iran because Australia signed a UN condemnation of the Iranian treatment of women?

Do I really need to be dismembered and barbecued so some Haitian gang lord can eat me?

There are people travelling in Somalia (Somaliland, Puntland) and even Venezeula, but the Red end of the list does tend to write itself...

Now to our North American Cousin:

I left the United States until last.

I do think it is in the right place on the list - people can travel to the United States and 'exercise normal safety precautions' and have a good time - as I am doing right now, literally as I write this.

But the placement of the US in relation to her European brothers and sisters is what annoys me.

It is not appropriate to slide the UK, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and France down the list into the Yellow because of the threat of terrorism when the US (of all places) waves it away with "Terrorism is a threat worldwide."

This is even more incongruous when we are advised:

  • "Violent crime is more common than in Australia. Gun crime is also prevalent. If you live in the US, learn and practice active shooter drills."
  • "There is a persistent and heightened threat of terrorist attacks and mass casualty violence in the US. Be alert, particularly in public places and at events."
  • "Medical costs in the US are extremely high. You may need to pay up-front. Ensure you have comprehensive travel insurance." (Good grief what an understatement...)

None of these truly apply to those relegated Yellow Europeans...

In Closing:

The smartraveller advice for visa and entry requirements is useful and it will continue to be my go to for this.

But make it make sense.

I think smartraveller is bordering on useless for judging travel risks, at least above the Red Zones. It is confusing, illogical and not up to date.

Your duty to 'exercise normal safety precautions' precedes you departure - look up some travel blogs, ask least just google where you are planning on travelling.

And enjoy.