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Gun Violence

Why some travelers are skipping the US: 'You guys are not afraid of this?'

What Uneaka Daniels experienced the last couple of times she was in the United States was enough to keep her away for a long time.

Bermuda-born and raised Daniels was in Atlanta in 2019 and decided to get her hair done. On her way to the salon, she stopped a man to ask for directions. Suddenly, everyone ducked. It was a drive-by shooting.

“I could actually see the gun and see it being fired,” she told ӣƵ. “The people on the street acted … as if it didn’t happen, and I’m here trying to crouch behind a tree. I said, ‘You guys are not afraid of this,’ and he said, ‘It happens so often.’” 

Her last visit to the U.S. was in 2023 for a medical procedure. While recuperating, Daniels went to the park across the street from her hotel “to get some sun” but felt uncomfortable by others, who she deemed sketchy or solicited her for money. “It was too much,” she said.

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For the past four years, she’s avoided travel to the U.S. “I love the United States, I love going there. I love the people, I loved everything about it, but I’m veering away now,” she said. “Not saying I won’t come back.”

Besides her experiences, Daniels has been turned off by the U.S. because of the rise of mass shootings – especially as a schoolteacher herself – and rates of homelessness. “Seeing the things on the United States news was scary,” she said. “My friends were telling me things have changed.”

Daniels' last experience in Atlanta has kept her away from the U.S. for some time now.

Daniels is not alone in her hesitation. 

A growing number of international travelers are opting out of trips to the U.S. The nation’s travel sector continues to struggle to rebound from the pandemic, with in 2023 than in 2019, according to a by the U.S. Travel Association and EuroMonitor International. The U.S. ranked 17th out of the top 18 travel markets, slotting in just above China, with one major factor being safety following visa time barriers and the strength of the U.S. dollar.

Between 2019 and 2021, the U.S. fell four places on the because of the lack of reliability of police services and fear of gun violence.

“There’s no doubt that for all travelers, safety is a concern,” Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, told ӣƵ. 

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Growing gun violence

Croatian loves to travel – he’s been around Southeast Asia and Ethiopia – but has yet to visit the U.S. for a few reasons, one being lax gun laws in certain parts of the country. 

Kralj went to Ethiopia in 2018, and felt relatively safe.

According to , gun ownership per capita in the U.S. exceeds that of Europe's highest country, Montenegro, by more than three times. 

Kralj said he hears about how often firearms are caught at TSA security checkpoints, an issue that’s become more prevalent in American airports. In 2023, TSA intercepted , at 6,737 – and 93% of them were loaded. 

Gun violence is a pressing issue in the U.S. The country ranks first for firearm homicides among high-income countries with populations over 10 million, according to the . The rates for age-adjusted firearm homicide in the U.S. are 19 times more than in France, and 77 times more than in Germany.

“The open politics toward gun possession, this is the weird part of America for me,” he told ӣƵ. “It shows lack of trust of Americans in America. … We’re not used to going around with arms or meeting someone and seeing that they have guns.” 

Less than two months into 2024, there have been 55 mass shootings, which are defined as four or more people shot or killed, excluding the shooter, according to the on Wednesday. 

In the U.S., last year marked the second-highest number of mass shootings since 2014, totaling 656 incidents. The highest count of mass shootings occurred in 2021, with 689 recorded incidents.

As stories of gun violence dominate the news, travelers like Kralj and Daniels take notice. 

“America is very televised as a society,” said Kralj. “You see all this, like when police stop someone or shoots them thinking they wanted to shoot them. These kinds of things are staying in your mind more. It’s very visible, very in your face.”

Putting safety first

The sentiment of safety in the U.S. can be hard to shake for many international travelers, who are especially “very much more influenced by” what they see on the news or social media, said Christopher Ankersen, a clinical professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. 

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“If you were to fly to the United States, a family of four in New York City, it’s very unlikely you’re going to find yourself on the receiving end of that kind of violence, but how does it feel, what kind of vibe is there than the actual risk-based probability?” he said. “People are not doing that calculation.”

Spain-born but Grenada-living Patricia Palacios has been all over the U.S. but won’t return unless she’s visiting her in-laws in Ohio, required by her job, or during a layover. She visited Times Square in New York in 2021 and felt “more uneasy than Buenos Aires at night or Mexico City,” citing “sketchy” surroundings.

Her reservations about the U.S. began in 2018 during a visit to San Francisco.

Patricia Palacios won't go on leisure trips to the U.S. after feeling uncomfortable in New York City.

“You cannot be careful by not going out at night; you can walk in the street in the middle of the day and things can happen,” she said. San Francisco is notorious for car break-ins, although city efforts . also went up by 14.5% in 2023 compared with 2022. 

Palacios, who runs a Spain travel guide called , acknowledges that travelers to cities like Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Paris also have to be cautious of petty theft or scams.

Palacios said she was almost robbed on her first afternoon visiting St. Lucia after her vacation rental host warned her and her husband to be aware of their surroundings. The couple was walking back from the beach to their accommodations along a road with few pedestrians when a man approached them and threatened that "something bad would happen to us" if they didn't give him what they had.

The couple said they didn't bring anything valuable to the beach, and in a moment of quick thinking, "dashed into the busy road so cars had to stop and started honking." She thinks the attention from the drivers deterred the robber from continuing, and he ran off.

“Stay smart,” Palacios said, adding that she always asks locals or her Airbnb host about places to avoid. “Get a feeling for the place by asking around.” 

The last time Daniels traveled abroad was in 2020 – a trip to England and Paris with her partner – and said she felt safe walking in the streets alone during the day and at night with her partner. “It was a completely different feeling than being in the U.S. I didn’t fear guns or see anybody begging for money as I have in the U.S.”

“I do want to come back to America,” Daniels said. “I’ll just be more cautious now.”

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for ӣƵ based in Hawaii. You can reach her at kwong@usatoday.com.

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