U.S. State Department should refrain from travel advisories

The unprecedented killing spree that left 33 dead, including the deranged gunman, at Virginia Tech last week makes me wonder whether it's time for the U.S. State Department to scrap its travel warnings about countries that it deems too dangerous for Americans to visit.

It's not only a list that is seen abroad as a symbol of U.S. hypocrisy, but it's become ridiculous in the wake of 9/11 or Virginia Tech: Some of the capitals on the U.S. "off-limits" list have not seen incidents of violence of this magnitude in recent years.

Hours after the Virginia Tech killings, I looked at the State Department's Web site to see its latest travel advisories. It includes both "travel warnings" that are issued "when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid a certain country," and "consular information sheets," which report about crime and other potential threats to U.S. citizens around the world.

Under the list of countries the State Department recommends Americans to avoid altogether are Israel, Haiti and Colombia. In the case of Colombia, it says that "citizens of the United States and other countries continue to be victims of threats, kidnappings, and other criminal acts," even though "violence in recent years has decreased markedly in most urban areas, including Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla and Cartagena."

In the case of Israel, it says that there is a continuing threat of suicide bombings. "The January 2006 and April 2006 suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, the December 2005 suicide bombing in Netanya and a similar incident in Hadera in October 2005 are reminders of the precarious security environment," it says.

But it so happens that last week's killings at Virginia Tech were as deadly as the worst recent incidents of violence in Colombia or Israel.

In Colombia, the deadliest attack in recent years was the February 2003 car bomb that destroyed the posh social club El Nogal in Bogota. It left a toll of 26 dead on the night of the explosion, although the death toll rose to 33 in the weeks that followed.

In Israel, none of the suicide bombings referred to in the latest State Department advisory reached the death toll we saw this week in Virginia. Among the worst recent mass killings in Israel were October 2004 attacks on two Sinai holiday resorts, which left 32 dead.

Colombia's Vice President Francisco Santos told me that the U.S. travel advisories are seen as an oddity abroad. He noted that, ironically, many people in Latin America see the United States as an unsafe country where terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, and where deranged gunmen - with the help of permissive gun laws - periodically carry out mass killings.

"These advisories cause a terrible damage to our countries, and are totally inflexible," Santos said. "In addition, they create political resentment against the United States."

Santos said the U.S. travel warnings also are misleading: Colombia's capital has dramatically reduced its crime rates, to the point that it is lower than Washington, D.C.'s, he said.

Colombia reports 24 homicides per 100,000 people in Bogota in 2005, while the FBI's latest report lists 35 homicides per 100,000 people in Washington, D.C., that year.

Does it make sense for the U.S. government to spend billions in economic aid to friendly countries such as Colombia and Israel, and at the same time shoot down their tourism industries?

I don't think so. Travel advisories are a good idea, but they should be left for nongovernment organizations. Ideally, America should once and for all begin to strictly control gun sales.

In addition, the State Department should ditch its travel advisory - or include the United States among the countries that are too dangerous to visit.

Andres Oppenheimer, a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, can be reached at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.