Is It Safe to Travel to the Middle East Right Now? – Fodor’s Travel

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Here’s what you need to know about traveling to the Middle East and Northern Africa amid current tensions between Iran and the U.S.

The recent assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s subsequent retaliatory missile attack targeting two U.S. bases in Iraq has ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East. Travelers may be wondering whether to postpone, cancel, or move ahead with travel plans. There are indeed increased risks in some countries, but there are also still safe places within the region to travel.

Travelers should keep in mind that the situation can change at any moment so it’s essential to stay informed and monitor local and international news for updates. It’s also wise to register with traveler enrollment programs such as STEP to receive up-to-date security alerts, and check the travel advisories issued by your home country—these can vary depending on each country’s diplomatic relationships (or lack thereof) in the region.

The following is based on current information available as of January 8 and is not an exhaustive history, but, rather, a guide intended to help travelers determine what’s best for their individual situation. As Fodor’s is a U.S.-based publication, these recommendations are intended for a U.S. and Western audience—we advise you to check with the foreign office of your own home country before traveling to any of the below.

Go Ahead

The following countries are considered safe, so no need to cancel your travel plans. However, as tensions in the region are high, as a general rule you should stay alert, avoid engaging in political or heated discussions and steer clear of large gatherings, protests, and demonstrations.

Jordan

A peaceful country known for its warm hospitality, incredible archeological sites such as Petra, and the natural wonders of UNESCO World Heritage Site Wadi Rum, Jordan remains a welcoming option for travelers.

Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board North America, just returned from a trip to Jordan with her children and is confident that the country remains an oasis “of peace and security.” She says “Jordan is a peaceful country. We oppose confrontation and have diplomatic relations with our neighbors. We welcome travelers from all over the world with our Bedouin hospitality.” She notes that “traveling anywhere in the world requires us to always be aware of our surroundings and use common sense” but affirms “it’s business as usual [in Jordan] and there is no reason for fear to drive people away.”

Word of warning: Avoid the borders with Syria and Iraq due to ongoing conflict.

Oman

Sometimes referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” Oman has managed to stay neutral, despite conflicts in neighboring countries. Oman has a strong track record of security, generally peaceful relations with most countries in the Middle East—including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—and is the only country in the region that currently has a score of zero on the Global Terrorism Index—that means zero fatalities, injuries, or incidents of terrorism within its borders (Qatar is a close second with a score of 0.03).

Words of warning: Avoid camping in isolated areas due to reports of assault. Avoid the border with Yemen due to the risk of violence and terrorist attacks. Officials may detain U.S. citizens that attempt to cross the Oman-Yemen border. Homosexuality is illegal here and punishable with jail time and even death, which poses an added risk for LGBTQ+ travelers. This is not the only country in the Middle East where this is the case, but as we’re listing this as a generally safe country, we feel this should be highlighted.

Proceed With Caution

The following countries are not currently on official “Do not travel” lists, but travelers should be aware of potential issues related to a variety of factors including alliances, unrest, and any history of attacks. Double-check with the U.S. State Department (or your home country’s state department or foreign travel office) for updated travel advisories and alerts as the situation can change.

Algeria

There is an ongoing threat of terrorism and kidnapping in Algeria. Attacks have typically been carried out in remote and rural regions (particularly in the mountains and Sahara) as well as eastern and southern borders, so these areas should be avoided, but it’s also important to remain vigilant in populated areas as well.

Word of warning: Before committing to travel plans here, check whether or not your country can provide emergency services. For example, the local government in Algeria restricts U.S. government employee travel outside of Algiers province, so a U.S. citizen in need of assistance may not be able to receive any if they’re beyond the bounds of the province.

Bahrain

While there is currently no specific threat to Bahrain, Iran’s Military Advisor Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan reportedly stated that Iran’s retaliation will target U.S. “military sites.” There is a large Navy base in Bahrain, so travelers to the country should stay abreast of developing news.

Words of warning: Protests and rallies are illegal and some have escalated into violence in the past; keep away from any demonstrations or large gatherings. It’s also illegal to show sympathy for Qatar or express disapproval of Bahrain’s official position with regard to their relationship (or lack thereof) with Qatar so be sure to mind your mouth and your social media here.

Egypt

The ancient pyramids alone make this a bucket-list destination for many intrepid travelers. Egypt hosted 9 million visitors in 2018 but sadly, the country is no stranger to terrorist attacks so those venturing here are advised to monitor local news, book with trusted tour operators, avoid demonstrations, and heed the changing travel advisories.

The British Foreign Office recently warned travelers that Iran-sympathizers in Egypt may target Western tourists. The U.S. State Department currently ranks Egypt at a Level 2 (Exercise Increased Caution), advising visitors to steer clear of the Western Desert and the Sinai Peninsula, unless flying to Sharm El Sheikh.

Word of warning: It’s important to inquire in advance about your country’s ability to assist in emergency situations. As is the case in Algeria, U.S. government employees’ reach in Egypt is restricted.

Kuwait

Kuwait’s amicable relationship with the U.S. could potentially make this small nation a target. According to the U.S. Department of State, the two countries share a long history that includes U.S. participation in Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq during the first Gulf War and, in recent years, Kuwait’s assistance with counterterrorism in the region.

In response to the recent Iranian vow of retaliation following the assassination of Gen. Soleimani, the U.S. announced it’s deploying over 3,000 troops to the region—many of which will be stationed in Kuwait.

Word of warning: New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade SafeTravel website is advising travelers in Kuwait to “maintain a high level of personal security awareness, particularly in public places known to be frequented by foreigners,” citing a history of terrorism threats in the region.

Morocco

There are no new threats specifically related to the situation with Iran, but travelers here should stay alert, monitor local news, and exercise caution due to terrorism threats.

Word of warning: Avoid Western Sahara—a disputed territory that contains landmines—and camping or hiking in remote locations. Book with a trusted tour operator that has a pulse on tourist-friendly locations and activities.

Palestine

Although the fallout from the assassination of Gen. Soleimani is not specifically impacting travel to Palestine, visitors should exercise caution here due to the complicated—and sometimes violent—history and ongoing conflicts with Israel. Travelers would be wise to study up on the complex situation prior to arrival as it is a significant part of understanding daily life and possible travel interruptions in Palestine.

Word of warning: Avoid travel to Gaza as the situation there remains unstable. Exercise caution if traveling in the West Bank; tensions between Israeli military and settlers and Palestinians can flare, resulting in unrest, demonstrations, and violence.

Qatar

There are no specific threats to Qatar currently, but travelers should be aware of its unsteady relationship with other countries in the region (namely, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE). Flights are not currently operating between Qatar and these countries.

Amy Siegal, an Associate with Valerie Wilson Travel in New York City, says she recently made a trip to Qatar and felt safe there. “Due to its location within the region, Qatar has always had a focus on safety and security,” she says. “I was there in November, visiting hotels and tourist attractions. All of them had metal detectors, scanners, and guards as I entered. At the time, it felt a bit intimidating. But on reflection, it’s one of the reasons I would feel comfortable returning. In addition, with all of the development currently going on there, partly in anticipation of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, new construction is all being fortified with the most current safety features. So, not only is this a country that’s had strict security measures in place, but more security is continuously being added, and the new buildings (i.e brand new hotels, The National Library, the National Museum of Qatar, etc) are being built with the most up-to-the-minute security systems in place—some that we may not even realize or notice.”

For those traveling there now, Siegal advises, “I would emphasize what I tell clients traveling anywhere: be smart, be vigilant, and don’t wander into areas that are less secure.”

Saudi Arabia

While there are no direct or specific known threats to travelers in Saudi Arabia, visitors are advised to exercise caution. Saudi Arabia and Iran previously had a history of hostility—including an Iranian backed attack on Saudi oil fields in September—but have taken some steps in recent years to alleviate tensions. U.S. military bases here could become vulnerable and the situation could change, so travelers should keep a watchful eye on the international and local news.

Word of warning: Steer clear of the border with Yemen due to ongoing threats of conflict and terrorism.

Tunisia

Safety concerns in Tunisia are not specifically related to the recent developments in the Middle East, but visitors should stay informed on travel advisories. According to the U.S. Department of State, terrorist groups continue to operate in the western mountains, Chaambi Mountain National Park, Jendouba El Kef, Kasserine, and Sidi Bou Zid.

Turkey

There is currently no known specific threat to Turkey, but visitors should be aware of its shared borders with Iran and Syria and the history of terrorist attacks within the country. A trusted local tour operator can advise travelers on places to visit and those to avoid, but all travelers should monitor local and international news for any changes.

United Arab Emirates

There are currently no specific known threats to the UAE beyond the larger regional concerns about terrorism, but travelers should exercise the normal precautions of staying alert, avoiding gatherings and demonstrations, and keeping on top of the local and international news.

Reconsider for Now

These countries are currently on a number of “Exercise increased caution” lists due to a variety of factors including ongoing and/or increased tensions and threats, unpredictable political situations, unstable security, and possible limitations of consular services.

Israel

The close ties between the U.S. and Israel could potentially make Israel a target. At Gen. Soleimani’s funeral in his hometown of Kerman, Iran on January 6, Hossein Salami (the new leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard) reportedly stated that Iran will avenge Soleimani’s death with an attack on enemies and “the places they love.” Soleimani’s daughter also warned of “darker days” for the U.S. and Israel.

The U.S. State Department issued an updated security alert on January 6, noting that “heightened tensions in the Middle East may result in security risks to U.S. citizens abroad” and that travelers should heed the red alert siren (used in Israel if mortar and rocket fire occurs) if it’s activated. Visitors should stay alert, avoid gatherings, and keep a close watch on the news as things can change quickly.

New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and others have also advised travelers of potential increased risks due to the unpredictable situation.

The borders with Gaza and Syria (as well as Israeli-occupied Golan Heights) should be avoided due to longterm and ongoing unrest, military operations, and potential for rocket fire.

Lebanon

Due to unrest, threats of terrorism, and the Hezbollah presence in Lebanon, the U.S. Department of State has assigned Lebanon a Level 3 travel advisory and urges travelers to reconsider travel here at this time. Hezbollah has vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death, specifically targeting U.S. military in the Middle East.

Pakistan

Several countries including New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. are advising against travel to Pakistan at this time due to the unpredictable security situation, risk of terrorism, restricted movement, and limited ability for foreign government employees to provide assistance.

No-Go

The following countries are considered extremely risky at the moment and are currently included on a number of “Avoid all travel” lists. In some cases, long term conflict has led to a breakdown of local government and there may be limited or no consular or emergency services available.

Professor Jason Blazakis, Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a former employee at the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, says, “After the death of Soleimani, it is prudent for tourists to avoid travel to countries listed at a [U.S.] State Department threat warning level of 3 and 4. Tourists should avoid going to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia.”

In addition to the countries listed below, Blazakis also advises former members of the military, USG personnel, or active duty military on vacation to avoid travel to Somalia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, and Israel.

Afghanistan

Due to the ongoing threats of terrorism, the kidnapping and threat to foreigners, and the unstable security situation, Afghanistan should be avoided. Many countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S. strongly advise against travel here and may be unable to assist in an emergency due to their nonexistent diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

Iran

Given the current unpredictable and tense situation, travel to Iran is a risk. The border with Afghanistan should be avoided and those travelers that may be considered sympathetic to or allies of the U.S. are advised not to travel here at this time. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship so those with Iranian-Canadian or Iranian-British dual citizenship, for example, may be detained or arrested with no access to consular services or support.

Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers, explains how his travel company is handling their trips to Iran and beyond: “Because of the uncertainty of the situation in Iran, we have made the decision to suspend trips to Iran for the first 6 months of the year [2020] as we don’t feel confident we can deliver our itineraries as planned. As of now, and bearing in mind we will keep the situation under constant review, we are not changing any of our planned trips in Pakistan, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East.”

Iraq

Due to the ongoing, unpredictable security situation and additional tensions caused by the assassination of Gen. Soleimani at Baghdad’s airport and the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq (and the subsequent suspension of services), travelers are strongly advised against travel to Iraq. Some travel warnings currently note an exception for essential travel to the northern Kurdistan region. Consular services may be unavailable depending on your own country’s diplomatic presence (or lack of) in Iraq.

Libya

Ongoing armed conflict, threats of terrorism, lack of security, and an unpredictable political situation have landed Libya on many “Do not travel” lists. Consult your home country’s foreign office for warnings and information on consular services in Libya.

Syria

Due to ongoing war, armed conflict, and unrest, Syria remains unstable and travelers are strongly advised not to—and in some cases, prohibited from—travel here.

Yemen

Longterm conflict has created an unstable situation in Yemen and, according to the U.N., it’s the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with widespread hunger, lack of supplies and proper medical care, and frequent deadly disease outbreaks. The absence of government in some areas has left the country vulnerable to terrorism, and foreigners, in particular, may be targeted. Houthis are aligned with Iran and have a stronghold in the northwestern part of Yemen. Many foreign embassies have shuttered, making access to emergency services difficult and even impossible in some cases.

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