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It could happen to you

By Rachel Briggs. Source: Observer, 25 August 2002

With more Britons getting into trouble abroad, the Foreign Office should rethink the way it gets advice to travellers, argues Rachel Briggs the author of Travel Advice

The nearest most people get to Foreign Office travel advice is hearing about it on the news. When Pakistan and India threaten nuclear holocaust, when Central Europe floods, or when a new wave of suicide bombings erupts in the Middle East, changes to travel advice becomes a news story. It is always linked in the public mind to hurried evacuations and imminent threats to life and limb. Of course, the news stories are always lopsided - we hear about advice when it becomes more stringent but never when it is relaxed. And this is part of the problem - the ordinary, prosaic incidents that cause the most headaches happen on the Ibiza package tour and Silver anniversary cruise, not just on the Peruvian Inca trail.

More and more Britons are falling into all kinds of trouble overseas each year. Statistics from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office show that the number of Britons detained or imprisoned overseas rose by nearly a half between 1995/6 and 2000/1, and the number of emergency passports issued rose by a quarter. The types of problems they face range from the irritating stomach upset brought on by ignoring warnings not to drink the tap water to ending up in a Foreign jail after ignoring local customs.

Unsurprisingly, Britons are more likely to fall into trouble outside Europe and North America, areas that, with the growth of adventure tourism, are experiencing some of the highest growth rates for British visitors. In 2001, while around three-quarters of all trips in 2001 were to just ten countries - France, Spain, USA, Republic of Ireland, Greece, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal - two-thirds of robberies, half of all rapes, and all abductions and kidnaps happened outside these countries.

Of course, these problems only affect a small minority. But if the number needing consular help continues to spiral, the Foreign Office may not be able to keep pace with demand. It predicts that overseas travel will grow by ten per cent in the next two years, but cannot guarantee that its funding for travel advice and services to Britons who fall into trouble will rise at the same speed. And with one-fifth of travellers still not taking out travel insurance to cover them if something does go wrong, overstretch is a real danger.

The Foreign Office's travel information has been called "world class" by some. But it is failing to get to the people who need it. In a recent poll, fewer than one in ten respondents were able to name a risk they may have faced on their last trip overseas, and it is estimated that less than 10 per cent of travellers consult the Foreign Office website. As Alan Flook of the Federation of Tour Operators says "there is still an amazing amount of ignorance among the travelling public, even about the most popular destinations and the most common problems."

There is also evidence to suggest that travellers do not seek out advice because they assume that they are in the protective arms of others. This attitude is summed up by Bob Boyce of Thomas Cook: "Customers [feel that they] don't need to consider the difficulties of travelling to a country on their own. The majority buy packages, are met by reps and hand-delivered to the hotel. The reps are there for any problems they might have during their holiday."

Complacency does not stop at the poolside. Many business travellers assume either that their company would not send them to work in a high-risk environment, or that they would be able to initiate security to eradicate the risks. As a former kidnap hostage in Colombia said, "I didn't know how big the risk of kidnapping was there. Of course, I knew Colombia wasn't the safest country in the world, but I assumed that my company would be able to keep me away from harm."

One of the reasons that advice is not getting through is that the Foreign Office have to produce general advice on a particular destination or country that cannot hope to suit those on business trips and 18-30 holidays. While tour operators complain that the advice is becoming too long, many companies want more detailed information. And while the Government might warn against all but essential travel to a particular country, risk consultancies may be advising their Business clients on how they can operate there.

With the constraints on the FCO's consular funding, it is unrealistic to expect it to foot the bill for targeted advice. Instead, it should team up with travel companies, aid agencies and Business to distribute effective advice - from how to keep lap-tops safe to how aid workers should behave in a conflict zone. The most effective time to communicate travel advice is immediately prior to, or during, the trip. This could mean including travel advice in the envelope with air-tickets, or paying those who hand out club flyers in Ibiza to distribute information on the dangers of drugs.

Since thousands of hours of consular time are already spent picking up the pieces after easily avoidable accidents, getting travel advice to those who need it would prove cheaper for the taxpayer - and cut down on those holiday-dampening trips to the Casualty Department.

But this is not to spill sand in the Ambre Solaire. The rise in overseas travel has been an overwhelmingly healthy phenomenon - a sign that we've sloughed off layers of British insularity and superstition about the rest of the world. The Foreign Office must give appropriate advice, but its also up to us to read and act on the information provided. The Man from the Ministry can't be expected to take sole responsibility for making sure that we don't go swimming in the dark.