What Makes a Travel Destination Safe?

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Everyone wants a safe vacation. But before addressing precautions travelers can take to ensure safe travels, there’s a larger question to answer: What are the criteria for safe international travel destinations?

It seems like an easy question, but there are many facets to travel safety, and all have to be evaluated before declaring a destination “safe” or “unsafe.”

You have to evaluate factors in the context of other factors, leading to puzzlers like: What’s more important – not being a victim of pickpockets or being free from mosquito-borne diseases?

Or what’s more important – being able to cross a street safely or not being thrown in jail for a public display of affection?

As you can see, the notion of “travel safety” isn’t as simple as it sounds.

To help tackle these questions, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection (BHTP), a North America-based travel insurance provider, conducted a research amongst its customers — American travelers. Based on the finding, it has created a comprehensive measurement of how safe popular cities and countries around the world really are. Read on to learn more about their response.

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The survey

As part of a comprehensive survey on travel attitudes and behaviors, BHTP asked travelers to give selected destinations a numerical value between 1 and 100 to indicate the destination’s relative safety.

The survey is a good start – but it’s only a start, because it measures the perception of safety, not actual safety. To gauge actual safety, BHTP has used a number of measures over the years, including:

  • The GeoSafe rankings from GeoSure Global, which evaluate a destination almost on a block-by-block basis on multiple safety measures, ranging from safety for LGBTQ+ travelers to safety at night;
  • The Global Peace Index (GPI), which measures how militarized and weaponized a country and its citizens are, and how tolerant it is of internal dissent;
  • The U.S. State Department’s numerical safety rankings (which add a number to rankings published by Canada and other national governments);
  •  Ratings on pandemic penetration and handling from a number of global public-health sites and sources; and
  • The UL Safety Index, now unfortunately discontinued, which measured the likelihood of a denizen of a given country being involved in an accident on the sidewalk, on the streets, or at home.

To get an overall score, BHTP weights the various measures and puts them on a uniform numerical scale, then calculates a total score on a 1 to 100 basis, with 100 being the safest.

Even a scale that uses multiple data points is imperfect; for instance, in 2020 China plummeted in BHTP’s rankings because American travelers placed blame on the country for starting and spreading the COVID pandemic.

Pandemic aside, China was not a significantly unsafe travel destination in any tangible way from 2019 to 2020; American travelers just thought of it as less safe.

The results

After producing its safest places to travel rankings for three years, BHTP is seeing some consensus from travelers on the world’s safest countries. In no particular order, they include:

  1. Australia
  2. New Zealand
  3. Iceland
  4. Switzerland
  5. Ireland
  6. Canada
  7. United Kingdom
  8. France
  9. Italy
  10. Germany
  11. Sweden
  12. Japan

Perhaps you can detect a pattern. Countries that American travelers think of as safe are predominantly English-speaking and/or European, or in the case of Japan, so overwhelmingly safe that it’s impossible for American travelers to ignore them.

(Also: American travelers were not asked to rate their own country as safe or unsafe. Based on the other measures, however, the United States would not rank as one of the world’s 10 safest countries for travelers).

What’s behind the rankings

These rankings aren’t just for American travelers; in fact, they have value for anyone considering travel to many of the world’s most popular destinations. Here are the characteristics that land these countries at the top of BHTP’s safety rankings:

1. Australia

Sydney Harbour Bridge, a great stop to visit on an Australia itinerary.
A one-week Australia itinerary is perfect to explore one destination in depth, such as Sydney.

Why it’s ranked highly: Australia always ranks highly among BHTP survey respondents. It’s done a good job with the pandemic, it’s a peaceable country according to the GPI, and GeoSure gives it uniformly high marks for all kinds of travelers.

2. New Zealand

A must-visit, Champagne Pool is a prominent geothermal area in New Zealand.
The Champagne Pool is a fizzy natural hot spring in New Zealand that should definitely be added to every New Zealand itinerary.
Huka Falls in New Zealand is a must see for all luxury travelers.
The Huka Falls is a mesmerizing sight to see for all travelers in New Zealand.

Why it’s ranked highly: New Zealand has been one of the world’s best countries when it comes to controlling the pandemic. It’s peaceful (No. 2 in the GPI), with high levels of personal safety, and survey respondents perennially rank it at or near the top for safety.

3. Iceland

Iceland-Best places to see the northern lights.
You can see the northern lights from anywhere in Iceland.
Black sand beach in Iceland- Best beaches on each continent.
 Iceland's Black sand beach gets its distinct sand from the iron-rich minerals.
The Kerid Crater is one of the most visited places in Iceland.
Kerid crater lake is frozen during winter months.
Rent a car in Iceland to move around at your own pace
Many tourist attractions are easily accessibly via roads in Iceland. If you are not interested in group tours then why not try renting a car instead?

 Why it’s ranked highly: Always a popular destination among survey respondents, Iceland’s high scores on peaceability (it topped the 2020 GPI) and COVID response keep it in the top five just about every year.

4. Switzerland

Best outdoor destinations in Switzerland include visitng the Swiss Alps.
The Matterhorn stands in the border between Switzerland and Italy.
Interlaken is a great place in Europe for outdoor activities.
 Interlaken is great for outdoor adventures as well as leisurely activities in Switzerland.

Why it’s ranked highly: Switzerland was top-10 in the 2020 GPI, though measures of its effectiveness in pandemic response were not as kind.

5. Ireland

Ireland is listed as one of the safest countries to travel in the world
Explore the streets of Dublin on your next visit to Ireland.

Why it’s ranked highly: Ireland is an extremely safe (according to GeoSure) and peaceable country that’s handled the pandemic moderately well. It’s also a long-time favorite of BHTP survey respondents.

6. Canada

Witness the Northern lights in Canada as you are pulled on a husky-sledge
Canada's location and minimal light pollution makes it a perfect place to view the Northern Lights.
Polar bear sighting in Manitoba, Canada
Visit Canada during October to November to witness the annual polar bear trek.

Why it’s ranked highly: Canada was rated as the safest destination among respondents to our survey, and was sixth overall in the GPI. It also receives high marks for the way it’s handled the pandemic.

7. Italy

Vernazza, a beautiful town in Italy.
Vernazza, a small beautiful village rich in architecture reflecting the traditional Italian cultures and monuments.

Why it’s ranked highly: Not a stellar performer in either the GPI or the GeoSure rankings, it has managed the pandemic fairly well after an early crisis, and it generally performs well in State Department rankings and BHTP traveler surveys.

8. Germany

City tours are one of the top things to do in Munich
Built between 1867 to 1909, New Town Hall is a famous landmark in Munich.
Albsteig is a beautiful trail for hiking in Germany
Albsteig is a tough hiking trails marked with some of the most beautiful castles in Germany like Hohenzollern (pictured here).
Vacation packages in Germany demands a visit to the Black Forest
 The Black Forest in Germany covered in snow during winter, making it an ideal location for a ski holiday.

Why it’s ranked highly: Germany has received generally good ratings for its handling of the pandemic. While BHTP survey respondents give it high marks, Germany has traditionally not scored well in other measures – until this year.

9. Sweden

July to August is the best time to visit Sweden
Stockholm looks ethereal against the night sky. July to August has pleasant weather and is the best time to visit Sweden.

Why it’s ranked highly: While its BHTP survey ratings have fluctuated, it’s done well in the GPI, the UL Safety Index, and the State Department rankings. For now it’s a top-rated destination for travel safety – and GeoSure likes it, too.

10. Japan

Situated in the hilltop, Himeji castle is a beautiful Japanese castle.
Himeji castle is a popular spot to visit if you're in Japan during the cherry blossom festival season.
Yamashiro onsen, an onsen town in Kanazawa is a major attraction of Japan.
Soak yourself in the spring waters of Kanazawa, that are said to have healing powers.

Why it’s ranked highly: Japan was able to marshal its resources and mount what was until recently an effective pandemic response. It also scores fairly high for peaceability and has been rated between seventh and 14th on the BHTP Safest Countries scale for the last three years.

The world’s safest cities

The top of Skyscrapers  amognst the clouds
Skyscrapers soaring above the clouds is the panoramic scenery of most cities

As for cities, BHTP has only evaluated their safety for one year, and came up with the following for a top 10:

  1. Tokyo
  2. London
  3. Dubai
  4. Madrid
  5. Berlin
  6. Honolulu
  7. Seoul
  8. Paris
  9. New York
  10. Los Angeles

It’s reasonably certain that an international traveler would not name Los Angeles or Honolulu among the world’s 10 safest cities; therefore, there’s little need to go into greater detail on those destinations.

In general, though, travelers are more likely to favor domestic cities and international metropolises like Seoul and Dubai where a measure of personal liberty is traded for stricter laws and law enforcement.

General observations on safe destinations

If American travelers and an American travel insurance provider can be taken at their collective words, a safe destination is one that’s different but not too different. What does that ultimately mean?

A couple of thoughts:

  1.  Newer and younger travelers might be better-served if they start their international travel odyssey with one of the destinations listed above or one with similar parameters, like many of the Caribbean islands.
  2. You can measure safety all you want and report it to travelers, but travelers are still going to have an ethnocentric view of the world, at least initially, and it takes a lot to change that view.
  3. Considering that many of the world’s safest destinations are also many of the world’s most desirable destinations, there’s something to be said about the value of promoting a destination as safe. Think of the opposite: The number of travelers who will want to visit a destination they know is unsafe is likely to be miniscule.
  4. These findings may be different for European travelers, who tend to be less xenophobic, but destinations that offer the safety of home along with familiar-yet-different experiences will always be popular with the general body of travelers, no matter their home country.

Learn more about the world’s safest places to travel, and follow along with each year’s results.

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