The case of the missing hiker, Jesse Galganov in Peru, and other high impact cases paint a picture of a world that is dangerous to travelers. The truth though, might surprise you. Death abroad is more complicated and at the same time more simple than what it seems.
Death is tragic and yet all of us are drawn, by a morbid curiosity, to stories about unusual or high-profile deaths. It’s that draw that made our piece about the missing hiker, Jesse Galganov, one of our most read stories. And, it’s that draw that makes us question the safety of travel, because the reality is, Americans do die abroad.
The ways in which Americans die though may make you reassess the danger of traveling abroad.
The most dangerous country for Americans?
But it’s not violent drug cartels, kidnappings, corrupt police or government officials or really, any group in Mexico at all that’s causing the most danger. It’s vehicles.
3,319 Americans died of unnatural causes in Mexico from October 2002 – December 2016, according to the U.S. Department of State–Bureau of Consular Affairs. Of that number, 1,220 died from an accident with a vehicle, including cars, motorcycles and buses. That number climbs to 1,276 if air and maritime accidents are added.
Why do so many Americans die in Mexico? That is simply because more Americans visit Mexico than anywhere else in the world.
28,733,000 American travelers visited Mexico in 2015 alone, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. Millions of Americans travel to Mexico and back every year without incident.
There is one chilling number. 966 Americans died of homicide in Mexico between 2002-2016.
But, a closer look reveals that again, Mexico isn’t dangerous. Nearly all the Americans that were killed in Mexico were killed in areas known to be dangerous. Only 24 of the 966 homicides were in tourist areas. Most American cities are more dangerous. Buckle up, be careful while swimming, and avoid areas with known cartel activity and you’ll be just as safe as if you went to Florida or California.
Mexico appears dangerous by sheer numbers but a closer look reveals it’s safe. That raises the question, are there any countries that are truly dangerous to Americans?
There isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question.
Afghanistan and Iraq are both dangerous to the Americans that go there, and both top the list for Americans that die abroad of terror activity. But, neither is a place your average vacationer (or any vacationer) would go.
East Asian countries have slightly higher instances of drug related death, but that doesn’t make them dangerous to the average traveler.
At first glance, Thailand has a relatively high rate of death compared to the annual number of American tourists, but that rate is inflated by an unusually high rate of suicide. In fact, more American’s commit suicide in Thailand, relative to the number of American tourists that visit, than anywhere else in the world*.
Take out war zones and countries that are all but prohibited to Americans, like North Korea, and you’ll see that, across the board, the world is a safe place for American travelers. The deciding factor isn’t the country, but what you do in the country.
There is one country that stands out above the rest for safety.
Our friendly neighbor up north, Canada, takes the cake.
Over 100 million Americans traveled to Canada between 2003 and 2016 and in that same period, there were 209 American deaths of unnatural causes in Canada. In a perfect world, no one would die of unnatural causes. And every death, no matter the cause, is tragic. But, Canada comes just about as close to a perfect world as possible.
The world isn’t dangerous, it’s the world’s vehicles that are dangerous.
Take out war zones and the top killer of Americans abroad is clearly traffic– no matter which country in which zone of the world you look at.
You can look at the data yourself if your morbid curiosity hasn’t been satisfied. You can download spreadsheets from the U.S. Department of State–Bureau of Consular Affairs for a single country or the entire world.
You can act on the admonishment “be safe!” by carefully choosing your transportation and buckling up. The world really isn’t so dangerous after all.
*There is no clear reason why Thailand has so many instances of American suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling with suicide, there is help, love and support. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255 or take a look at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
The data used for this piece come from the U.S. Department of State– Bureau of Consular Affairs and the National Travel and Tourism Office.