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The U.S. Department of State is changing the way it makes recommendations to U.S. travelers about which destinations are unsafe to visit by eliminating travel warnings and alerts and issuing travel advisories, to various degrees, for every country in the world.

Starting this week, each country is ranked on the State Department’s travel advisory website according to one of four levels: Level 1 (exercise normal precautions), Level 2 (exercise increased precaution), Level 3 (reconsider travel) and Level 4 (do not travel). The third and fourth levels effectively replace travel warnings that were previously issued for some countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia.

The changes represent one of the largest overhauls in the state department travel advisory system’s history and the first significant change to the system in many years, said Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, during a press call on Wednesday to announce the changes.

“Over the years, we’ve come to recognize that our various documents weren’t really understood,” said Bernier-Toth. “About a year ago, we began a very intensive analysis of our consular program, travel warnings, and advisories.”

Bernier-Toth said the analysis revealed the department needed to make the travel advisory program more accessible through a mobile website, make travel advisories easily understood by explaining to travelers why countries are cited as a threat, and to make warnings and advisories more actionable by telling people how they can avoid dangerous situations.

When asked if doing away with travel warnings will cause confusion for travelers, as warnings were often clear that a country is generally unsafe to visit, Bernier-Toth said that the new Level 4 advisories meant to replace warnings are outlined in red and are pretty obvious.

“As part of this revamp, we looked at how other countries handle their alerts, and they track with ours, but I think ours have more detail,” she said, referring to the updated system. “I think people will find it easier to understand and in the past, people often didn’t understand the difference between alerts and warnings.”

Bernier-Toth said she doesn’t feel many countries will be surprised with their advisory levels or retaliate based on their level and issue advisories for the U.S., and that all governments have been provided with the final copies of their advisories. “China’s level, for example, isn’t published on our site yet but I can tell you that it’ll be a Level 2,” she said. “How we rank a country hasn’t changed but how we describe those conditions has changed. We can’t prevent people from traveling to a country, but we do have a general restriction of U.S. passports for North Korea.”

Cuba’s previous travel warning, for example, is listed as a Level 3 travel advisory under the new system and is marked with an “H” icon, which indicates that a health risk is present in the country. Bernier-Toth said the “H” was added to the advisory because of the sonic attacks at the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, but that the State Department’s assessment of Cuba hasn’t changed.

Other icons used for other advisories include “C” for crime, “T” for terrorism and “N” for natural disaster, for instance.

Some countries like Mexico have different advisories for different regions, which Bernier-Toth said are issued because of the State Department’s policy against double standards. “Where U.S. government personnel are not allowed to go in a particular country, we want to make sure that U.S. public is aware of the restrictions we impose on ourselves so that we can help advise them with their own travel decisions,” she said.

As part of the changes, U.S. embassies and consulates will issue alerts for travelers as part of the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to replace the current emergency messages and security messages. Alerts will consist of specific safety and security concerns in a country, such as demonstrations, crime trends, and weather events, for example.

Level 1 and 2 advisories will be reviewed on an annual basis unless something, such as a terrorist attack, causes the state department to reevaluate sooner, while Level 3 and 4 advisories will be reevaluated every six months.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated with more details.

Photo Credit: The state department will issue new travel advisories for each country to describe various situations, such as this protest pictured in Istanbul, and how they might impact travel. Eser Karadağ / Flickr