US scraps travel warning, gives Kenya second-highest rating


Tourists at a beach hotel in Mombasa. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The US State Department announced Wednesday that it is scrapping its travel warnings for specific countries and instead launching a four-level “travel advisory programme.”

Kenya is placed in the second tier under the new system. When visiting countries in that grouping, US citizens are urged to “exercise increased caution.”

Officials in Kenya and the country's tourism stakeholders are likely to welcome the changes initiated by the Trump administration, which also comes as Kenya Airways #ticker:KQ announced direct flights to the US beginning October.

America has in the past warned its nationals against travel to Kenya, prompting complaints that such notifications were unjustified and damaging to the economy.

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Tourism boost

The US has been ranked as the top source of tourists to Kenya, with the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) reporting that more than 82,000 Americans visited between January and October 2016 , compared with close to 81,000 arrivals from Britain in the same period.

Explaining the revised US notification system, State Department official Michelle Bernier-Toth told reporters that “over the years, we’ve come to recognise that sometimes our various documents were not readily understood.”

“We also needed to make sure that the information was more easily understood, putting it into plain language, making it clearer why we were ranking countries, why we were citing them as a threat or a risk.”

Ms Bernier-Toth, the acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens' services, noted that the method of assessing travel risks has not changed.

Advisories are based on information from intelligence agencies, US embassies and host countries' governments, she added.

The content of the Kenya section in the new system is similar to evaluations issued by the Obama administration.

Warning against Kenya-Somalia border

Now, as then, US citizens are told that violent crime can occur at any time in Kenya and that police often lack the capacity to respond to criminal incidents.

The new advisory flatly warns against travel to the “Kenya-Somalia border and some coastal areas due to terrorism.”

The counties of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River and Lamu are included in the suggested no-go area, along with parts of Kilifi County north of Malindi.

It is also suggested that US citizens “reconsider travel to Nairobi neighbourhood of Eastleigh at all times and Old Town in Mombasa at night due to crime.”

“Consider carefully whether to use the Likoni ferry in Mombasa due to safety concerns,” the advisory adds.

“Do Not Travel”

Somalia and South Sudan are among 11 countries worldwide placed in the level-four category which is headed “Do Not Travel.”

Mali and the Central African Republic are also given level-four ratings, along with Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Burundi is designated a level-three destination. The US tells prospective visitors to “reconsider travel” to Burundi due to crime and armed conflict.

Rwanda is the only East African country given a level-one rating, under which US citizens are advised to “exercise normal precautions.”

US citizens should, however, “reconsider travel to the Rwanda-Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border due to armed conflict,” the advisory states.

Tanzania and Uganda are both placed in the level-two group along with Kenya.

Travelers are told to “exercise increased caution in Tanzania due to crime, terrorism, and targeting of LGBTI persons.”

The Uganda section makes no mention of threats to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender or intersex persons, despite passage of a law in 2013, later annulled by the country's Constitutional Court, that mandated life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.”

US citizens are simply advised to exercise increased caution in Uganda due to crime.


Ms Bernier-Toth pointed out that US nationals are not prohibited from traveling to any country, including those in the level-four category.

“We cannot prevent people from traveling to a country,” she said. “The 'do not travel' is our recommendation.”

The State Department does, however, restrict the use of a US passport for travel to North Korea.

Americans wishing to travel there “must apply for a one-time waiver and provide justification as to why they need to go,” Ms Bernier-Toth said.