What makes Madagascar a unique country to travel to?
Madagascar is a developing island nation off the east coast of Africa. The primary languages are French and Malagasy. French is less spoken outside of major cities. Facilities for tourism are available, but vary in quality and are in general limited. Travelers seeking high-end accommodations should make reservations in advance.
Madagascar has experienced a dramatic spike not only in the number of crimes, but also in their severity and type. To put this into perspective, Madagascar remains, by and large, safer than many other African countries and even certain U.S. cities.
Over the last three years, there has been a surge in armed attacks. The number of reported incidents has increased steadily since 2009, and by mid-2013, the U.S. Embassy noted reports of more home invasions. The majority of reported crimes targeted Malagasies and did not involve foreigners.
Carjackings, though infrequent in cities, are known to occur. There have been many reports of thieves reaching into stopped vehicles, opening unlocked doors, or sometimes breaking the windows to steal cell phones, purses, and even jewelry from their victims. Keeping windows rolled up and doors locked will minimize these types of situations.
In addition, armed bandit attacks on vehicles carrying goods and people—specifically taxi-bes (which operate within urban centers) and taxi-brousses (which travel to outlying regions) —have increased drastically since 2009 and now occur regularly. Groups of armed bandits often position themselves on the national routes after dark to ambush vehicles. Others have involved armed criminals who stage a “breakdown” that blocks the roadway, forcing the victimized driver to slow down, and hence become more vulnerable. Additionally, sometimes local villagers design a “trap” of sand, a tree log, or some other substance or condition that makes the only viable road impassible. Local villagers then “assist” the stranded vehicle and expect monetary compensation. Although the interim government has taken steps to increase checkpoints to deter banditry, the U.S. Embassy prohibits personnel from traveling at night outside of Antananarivo or the other major cities, due to these attacks and the lack of security force coverage outside of city limits. All U.S. citizens are advised to avoid unknown taxis, especially if alone or at night.
Another major concerns for visitors, especially those in Antananarivo, are crimes of opportunity, such as pick-pocketing, purse snatching, and residential and vehicular theft. Although some of these crimes are non-confrontational, incidents involving violence by assailants do occur and are rising, particularly when the victim resists and when several persons confront the victim. The U.S. Embassy has received reports of physical attacks against foreigners, including U.S. citizens, particularly in coastal tourist areas. A number of these attacks resulted in serious injuries and, in rare cases, fatalities. Criminal elements in Antananarivo and throughout Madagascar are becoming bolder when selecting their victims, and are also committing more crimes in areas that are considered to be “safe:” those that are generally well-lit and well-traveled by pedestrians and vehicles.
Criminal gangs comprised of felons, ex-military, and police are known to commit home invasions and kidnappings, sometimes targeting foreigners. In April 2013, a Western businessman working in Antananarivo was kidnapped at gunpoint and held for four days before being released for ransom. Organized gangs of bandits are known to patrol areas where foreigners, who are perceived to be wealthy, tend to congregate. Crimes such as burglary and robbery also occur in areas outside the capital, and the threat of confrontational and violent crime in rural and isolated areas continues to rise. Coastal cities like Toamasina and Mahajunga have experienced a particularly significant rise in crime over the last year, and violent assaults on foreign travelers in high-traffic tourist areas, like Nosy Be, the Ankerana and Montagne d’Ambre National Parks adjacent to Diego, and the area surrounding Tolagnaro (Ft. Dauphin), have also been reported.
To reduce the risk of being victimized, travel in groups and avoid wearing expensive jewelry or carrying costly electronic items (iPods, digital cameras, or high-end cell phones) with you in public. Valuable items should never be left in an unattended vehicle or at a hotel (unless locked in the hotel safe). Walking at night, whether alone or in a group, is not considered safe in urban areas, including in the vicinity of Western-standard hotels, restaurants, and night clubs in Antananarivo. Visitors are strongly discouraged from traveling outside of cities after dark, due to banditry, lack of lighting, poor road conditions, and lack of security assets. While traveling in vehicles, remember to lock your doors and keep your windows rolled up at all times.
In major cities, the National Police are charged with maintaining peace and security. Outside of major cities, the Gendarmerie is primarily responsible for these duties. Due to a lack of resources and equipment, police and gendarmerie responses to victims of crime are often limited, slow, or nonexistent. Though not exclusively targeted at foreigners, popular discontent with the ability of authorities to maintain law and order has resulted in a number of incidents of violent vigilantism and summary mob justice. As recently as October 2013, two French nationals accused of being pedophiles or organ traffickers in Nosy Be were burned alive by an angry crowd. A third suspect, a Malagasy national held by police, was seized and also killed. Similar incidents of mob justice have occurred throughout the country, including Diego, Toamasina, and Tolagnaro (Ft. Dauphin).
U.S. citizens visiting Madagascar should not expect to experience any hostility or aggression solely because of their citizenship.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Bootlegs are illegal in the United States, and their purchase may also violate local Malagasy laws.
While you are traveling in another country, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in your host country, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It's very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Malagasy laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking of illegal drugs, as well as child prostitution, are severe. Convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines in Madagascar.
Arrest notifications in host country:
While some countries will automatically notify the U.S. Embassy if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the U.S. Embassy as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Standards of healthcare throughout Madagascar are well below U.S. standards. There are small hospitals and clinics in Antananarivo that provide basic but acceptable care for emergencies. Outside of Antananarivo, the quality of care is very questionable and should only be used when other options are not available. Caution and good judgment should be exercised when seeking hospital and medical services. The U.S. Embassy maintains a list of hospitals and specialists, which can be provided on demand.
Most medications, generally of French or South African origin, are available in Antananarivo. If you need to refill a prescription from outside of Madagascar, it is important to carry a prescription from your health care provider listing the medicine's generic name, but it is best not to rely on re-filling medications in Madagascar as the availability varies. Travelers are advised to carry a supply of anti-malarial medication if traveling outside Antananarivo. U.S. citizens who will be carrying medications with them to Madagascar may wish to contact the Malagasy Embassy in Washington, D.C., regarding any restrictions on imports.
Ambulance services are available in Antananarivo with Assistance Plus at 032 07 801 10 or 22 487 47; Polyclinique d’Ilafy at 22 425 73 or 033 11 458 48; Espace Medical at 22 625 66 or 22 481 73 or 034 05 625 66; and CDU (Centre de Diagnostic Medical d’Urgences) at 22 329 56. However, due to traffic jams, response times are often dangerously slow. Assistance Plus has air ambulance capacity for remote and less accessible regions of the country.
Malaria is prevalent, particularly in the coastal regions. Using preventive measures and malaria prophylaxis is strongly recommended. Rabies is endemic, and there are many street dogs. It is recommended that travelers have the pre-exposure vaccination series prior to arrival in Madagascar. If bitten by an animal, wash the affected area immediately with soap and running water for ten minutes. Seek medical care immediately at the Institute Pasteur in Antananarivo. Plague is also endemic to Madagascar, but casual tourists are unlikely to be infected. While the reported HIV prevalence rate is low, particularly by African standards, Madagascar suffers from a very high reported incidence of sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis.
The East African Indian Ocean islands have seen a rise in cases of chikungunya, a viral dengue-like ailment, and dengue itself. As with malaria, chikungunya and dengue are transmitted by mosquitoes. Every effort should be made to use bed nets, repellants, proper clothing, and barriers that discourage/prevent mosquito bites. The CDC has further information on chikungunya and dengue on their website.
Travelers should drink bottled water or carbonated beverages. Local water is not potable. Water purification tablets may be used as necessary. Bottled water is readily available.
Safety and Security
In March 2009, the democratically elected government of Madagascar resigned in actions that the U.S. government has termed a coup d’état. Internationally observed presidential and parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for October 25 and December 20, 2013, but spontaneous protests remain possible, particularly in Antananarivo.
Travelers should maintain security awareness at all times and avoid political gatherings and street demonstrations. Certain large gatherings, such as concerts or scenes of accidents, also may pose a threat to foreigners. In September 2013, the U.S. Embassy prohibited U.S. government personnel from visiting or transiting l’Avenue de l’Independence in downtown Antananarivo, after multiple explosive devices were either found or detonated in central Antananarivo.
Travel in the provincial areas is generally safe but caution should be exercised at all times. At the start of the political crisis in January 2009, a number of provincial capitals experienced political demonstrations that had, on occasion, become violent and resulted in clashes with security forces and looting. A number of national highways connecting provincial cities and the capital experienced temporary road blocks by political demonstrators resulting in travel delays.
There are random police vehicle checkpoints throughout Madagascar, so all visitors should carry photo identification (residency card, U.S. passport) in the event of police questioning. These checkpoints are routine in nature, and should not result in vehicle and/or person searches as long as valid identification is shown.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Madagascar, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. In Madagascar, you drive on the right side of the road, generally yielding the right of way to vehicles coming in from the left. Some major intersections and traffic circles have police directing traffic. If a policeman has his back to you at an intersection, you are required to stop. Laws make seatbelt use mandatory and prohibit cell phone use while driving, even with a hands-free attachment. Child safety seats are not mandatory, but motorcycle helmets are required in Madagascar. If you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol, your car will be impounded for a few days, and you will have to pay a fine. If you are involved in an accident involving injuries and/or deaths, there is a mandatory court case. The losing party of the court case must then pay all costs.
Except for Antananarivo’s main streets and a few well-maintained routes to outlying cities, many roads are in various states of disrepair. Some may be impassable during the November-March rainy season. Night travel by private or public transportation outside Antananarivo is strongly discouraged, due to poor lighting and road conditions. Roads tend to be narrow and winding with many one-lane bridges and blind curves, and most roads outside of main routes and city centers are cobblestone, gravel, or packed dirt. Most vehicles tend to drive in the center of the road unless another vehicle is present. It is common to find livestock or human-drawn carts in the middle of the road, even at night. Local practice is to blow the horn before going around a curve, to let others know of one's presence. There are few pedestrian crosswalks and no working traffic signals.
Travel within Antananarivo can be difficult with poor road signage, streets congested with pedestrians, bicycles, animal carts, vehicular traffic, and an abundance of one-way streets. Taxis are plentiful and are generally reasonably priced. Bargain for the fare prior to getting into a vehicle. Most accidents are pedestrian-related, due to narrow roads and lack of sidewalks on many streets. When traveling between cities, travelers must have clear directions as there are rarely signs indicating where one must turn to reach a destination. Conditions of rural roads can degrade significantly and with little notice during the rainy season.
Rental cars generally come with a driver who is responsible for maintaining the vehicle and sometimes acts as a tour guide. Public transportation is unreliable and vehicles are poorly maintained. Rail services are extremely limited and unreliable.
The Ministry of Public Works, telephone (20) 22-318-02, is Madagascar's authority responsible for road safety. During an emergency, visitors to Antananarivo can contact local police by dialing 117, 22-227-35, or 22-357-09/10. U.S. citizens can also call the U.S. Embassy at (261) 20-23-480-00 if assistance is needed in communicating with law enforcement officials.