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12 Apr, 2004

UK Govt Publishes Review of Advisory Issuance Procedures

The UK government last week published a review of its controversial travel advisory issuance procedures and invited additional public comment before finalising the document. It is expected to be avidly discussed at the annual conference of the Pacific Asia Travel Association in Jeju, Korea, this week.

However, the document is expected to come under fire because it admits to a lack of public trust and makes a startling admission that the Joint Terrorism Advisory Centre (JTAC), the UK government body which assesses terrorism threats, “acknowledge that their threat assessments are not an exact science but judgments based invariably on incomplete information.”

After a barrage of criticism from Indonesia, the Philippines and other regional destinations affected by terrorism, the UK Foreign Secretary Mr. Jack Straw announced in Parliament last December 2003 that the travel advisory procedures would be reviewed.

Led by former Philippines tourism minister Richard Gordon. who at that time was also chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, regional national tourism organisations sought accountability and transparency in the way the advisories are issued, as well as a say in their content.

In his introduction to the document, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw acknowledges the concern. He says the advisories “must inform people of the threat from terrorism” and that they “will inevitably lead to some disruption in travel in the interests of public safety.”

“But at the same time we must make sure we do not do the terrorists’ work for them by causing too much of the very disruption which the terrorists want.

“So our Travel Advice needs to strike an important balance….. We must give people the information they need to remain vigilant, and to make judgments about risk and security as they do every day, while allowing normal life to go on to the greatest extent possible.”

Mr. Straw added, “Travel Advice is, quite rightly, under greater scrutiny than ever before, so more than ever it must be timely and of the highest quality. Much has been done in recent years to improve our Travel Advice; but we can do more.”

However, after a wide ranging review of various aspects, including insurance coverage and comparison with other countries’ advisories, the study concludes that “Significant change is not needed in the process by which Travel Advice is produced in Whitehall and the (Foreign Office). Some editorial changes could sharpen its impact.”

It recommends that the Foreign Office “should continue to provide prescriptions against travel in cases of non-terrorist threats (coups, civil wars, natural disasters), as at present; but we should confine such prescriptions in the case of intelligence-based terrorist threats to situations of extreme and imminent danger.”

It adds, “More generally, the (Foreign Office) could adopt a new presentational strategy aimed at framing the issues more openly; enhancing public trust; and building on the principles for risk management in the public sector recommended by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.”

The ‘trust’ factor is where the travel industry has a problem.

In trying to put the issue into context, the study notes that of the 316 deaths front non-natural causes by UK citizens in 2002, only 29 were from terrorism as against 158 deaths in road accidents, 57 suicides, 21 drownings and the rest by rail deaths, murder, balcony-related accidents and skiing/mountaineering accidents.

“Statistically, therefore, terrorism overseas represents a relatively small risk to UK travellers.” Hence, the study had to build a case as to why terrorism should get so much attention.

Not only is this case somewhat weak, the study does not quite address another major demand of the travel & tourism industry, viz., the sources of information on which the advisories are based. On this issue, it says:

“We cannot expose much of our evidence because of the need to protect sources. We have to ask stakeholders to take our word based on their trust in us. But there is not much trust to draw on, for reasons which include Parliamentary and press criticism of the Foreign Office in the wake of the Bali bombing;

“The public has exaggerated expectations about how much the intelligence agencies, and (the UK Government) collectively, know about the terrorist threat – a point made by senior officials in the security field. JTAC acknowledge that their threat assessments are not an exact science but judgments based invariably on incomplete information.

“Because the public think (the UK Government) collectively know more than we do, they assume that failings are due not to the limitations of our intelligence capability, but to our being incompetent or worse.”

It also admits that the interests of the government and the industry stakeholders are mutually contradictory.

“There is no one approach which will please all the people all the time,” the study says. “What most stakeholders most want is a definitive judgment on whether travel is safe. We can seldom provide this.”

All these findings are certain to create further controversy in an industry that is getting fed up with being victimised by both terrorism and the subsequent travel advisories, especially in the wake of allegations of double standards following the recent bombings in Madrid.

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