Dr Sabletodo – March

What’s up with Guatemala’s new travel advisory?

Dear Dr. Sabelotodo,

In January, the U.S. State Department came out with a new travel advisory system in which they gave every country a number from 1 to 4 based on how dangerous it is. They gave Guatemala a 3 for “reconsider travel.” So is it safe here or what?

Petrified Pete

I’m not going to tell you it’s safe here, Pete. The world’s an unsafe place: dogs bite, buses crash, and toes stub. If you wanted to be safe, you should have just stayed in your mother’s womb, but you slid out and moved thousands of miles away. So tough­en up.

The good news is that you’ll probably be fine while you’re in Guatemala. Don’t walk alone at night, keep your valuables at home, and trust your gut. But on the whole, Guatemala is a relatively safe place, and aside from the occasional robbery, plenty of extranjeros live here without any trou­ble. There are even extranjeros who walk around in pajama pants, wearing seashells in their hair, and no one bothers them.

Unfortunately, any reduction in American tourism could be devastating for many Guatemalans . Tourism is one of Guatema­la’s most important industries, accounting for a quarter of GDP, and a lot of Guate­mala’s tourists are khaki-clad gringos who care what the State Department says.

A reduction in American tourism could be devastating for many Guatemalans. A lot of communities, such as those around the lake, depend heavily on tourism for their livelihood, and Guatemala had actually been in the midst of a tourism boom, with an 11% increase in visitors in 2017. Hope­fully the U.S. government has lost enough credibility that the boom continues.

But this change affects more than just tourism. Local branches of American-based NGOs depend on an influx of volunteers for labor and donations, and headquarters won’t send volunteers if they think Guatemala is a scary place. These lo­cal branches are working hard to convince their American overlords that Guatemala is still safe despite the 3. However, significant damage has already been done, with one NGO losing $57,000 in February alone due to cancelled volunteer trips.

Now for the million Quetzal question: why is Guatemala a 3? They say it’s because of the high crime rate, but let’s take a step back and look at the ranking system as a whole.

A score of 1 means “exercise normal precautions,” and was given to the majority of countries: Canada, Australia, Thailand – all the boring ones. A 2 means “exercise increased caution,” and was given to around fifty countries, which include Germany, France and the UK. A 3 means “reconsider travel” and, in addition to Guatemala, was given to Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and many other countries. And finally, a score of 4 for “do not travel” was given to eleven countries including at least four that have been severely destabilized by the U.S in the past two decades, but we won’t dig into that.

What’s the point of my rambling? It’s that these rankings, while informative, are po­litically motivated and conform quite nice­ly to a gringo-centric worldview. A worldview that has done serious damage to Guatemala in the past. So to answer your question: yes you’re safe; yes Xela is safe; and yes we should all support the Guate­malan people anyway we can, in spite of State Department fearmongering.

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