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August 4, 2002

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Travel advice: Getting information to those who need it

Rachel Briggs

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, when a new wave of suicide bombings erupts in the Middle East, changes to Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) travel advice become a news story. Travel advice 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, perhaps, is part of the problem. People do not see travel advice as something that applies to them when they go on their package holiday to Ibiza or Silver anniversary cruise on the Nile. The ordinary, common risks that result in the most harm and place greatest strain on British consulates world-wide – muggings through being in the wrong part of town after nightfall, diseases after drinking contaminated water – lose out to the “Briton kidnapped” or “Briton on death row” stories.

Travel Advice is an attempt to redress this by looking at how the Foreign Office can give all travellers a proportionate and informed sense of the risks they might face.

The first chapter shows that more Britons are getting in trouble abroad. The number of Britons imprisoned, hospitalised, dying or in need of an emergency passport has risen over the last five years. Perhaps not surprisingly, as chapter two shows, Britons are more likely to get into trouble in less commonly visited countries. With the predicted 10 per cent growth in travel – and in particular the increase in adventure tourism and the growing investment and operations of British companies and their personnel in emerging markets – these trends are likely to continue. Though some risks – natural disasters and political turmoil – are in the lap of the gods, many hazards can be avoided with sound advice.

This publication does not intend to signal a crisis in the safety of Britons: the steady growth in overseas travel has been an overwhelmingly healthy phenomenon. Naturally, only a tiny proportion of Britons end up in trouble, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are any more prone to danger than other Westerners. It is not even necessarily true that the world is becoming more dangerous – the rising living standards and development of infrastructure that can accompany globalisation has made many places less forbidding. The fact that more people are travelling abroad is a sign that we’ve sloughed off layers of superstition and ignorance about the rest of the world. But while the increased familiarity with the rest of the world can leave people better informed, it can also breed complacency. The comforting sight of McDonalds and BP in remote locations and the nonchalant ease of modern travel can lull travellers into a false sense of security.

Chapter three looks at the different risks faced by those on package holidays, independent travellers and those travelling for work. It argues that there is widespread ambiguity about who is responsible for the safety of these individuals abroad: evidence shows that conventional holidaymakers tend to feel that their tour operator cocoons them from danger. Business travellers assume that the company wouldn’t send them to dangerous places. Meanwhile, there is an assumption amongst many humanitarian and aid workers that the support for their work amongst local communities will buy them immunity from harm.

The schema adopted is also far from comprehensive. Travel Advice divides according to the type of travel rather than the type of traveller. Though socio-economic factors – gender, age, income bracket, ethnicity – are important in targeting travel advice, and worthy of further research, I judge that risks are largely determined by reasons for travel rather than identity. There are, of course, exceptions, as illustrated by the recent FCO advice that “visibly Western” – meaning White – Britons faced greater and different risks in Pakistan.

The fourth chapter, a survey of existing travel advice provision, argues that information is not getting through to those who need it. A tiny proportion of travellers consult Foreign Office travel advice, and the uniform format in which advice is offered cannot meet the needs of different travelling groups. Chapter five concludes with a menu of policy-options showing how Government partnerships with Business, the Travel Industry and the Aid Community might improve the dissemination of advice. Though the remedies outlined in Travel Advice will require a lot of institutional energy and co-ordination, the goal is simple. Checking Foreign Office travel advice should become as natural as checking that you have your passport, tickets and foreign currency before travelling abroad.

Travel Advice is not intended to be an exhaustive study of the risks faced by people travelling abroad, nor a guide to the information available to different groups of travellers. Though this report does not create a hierarchy of risk, clearly the theft of a wallet in Ibiza is less significant than a kidnapping in Bogota. Neither is it a discussion of the content of Foreign Office travel advice or the extent of personal responsibility. When travellers have ignored official advice and ended up in trouble, should diplomatic resources be spent trying to get them out? When Britons smuggle drugs into Malaysia or Thailand should the Government spend political capital trying to ameliorate their conditions of detention? In an increasingly individualistic age is it appropriate that the Man from the Ministry is responsible for making sure that you don’t go swimming in the dark? These are interesting questions, but beyond the scope of this report. Thousands of hours of consular time are spent picking up the pieces after easily avoidable accidents. Travel Advice argues that if the Foreign Office is to continue with its current responsibilities to Britons overseas, prevention is better than cure.

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