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28 Jun, 2004

UK Foreign Office Agrees to Issue Travel Advisories “Sparingly”

In a major victory for global travel industry associations, the UK Foreign Office has agreed to fine-tune its travel advisory service and issue them “sparingly” and “only in situations of extreme and imminent danger.”

In a written statement to UK Parliament on 22 June, the UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced the outcome of a review of the Foreign Office Travel Advice which was undertaken following worldwide industry complaints about the transparency and accountability of the process, as well as their counterproductive impact on destinations worldwide.

Noting that the review was designed to “to improve the service and maintain the credibility of Travel Advice,” Mr. Straw told Parliament: “In future, in the case of intelligence-based terrorist threats, we shall advise against travel only in situations of extreme and imminent danger – if the terrorist threat is sufficiently specific, large-scale or endemic to affect British nationals severely.

“We shall continue to advise against travel in cases of non-terrorist threats (coups, civil unrest, natural disasters) on the same basis as before. Many people continue to travel despite our warnings against all but essential travel. We believe the public will be better served if such warnings are used more sparingly.”

Mr. Straw also said that a recommendation to establish a Standing Advisory Council had been accepted to advise on issues arising from Travel Advice and its implementation. Details of membership, timing and agenda are still to be finalised, but the Council would bring together representatives of the travel and insurance industries, NGOs and others.

According to the Foreign Office statement, Mr. Straw has also asked officials to implement a number of recommendations from the Review, and from the subsequent consultation, to make the Travel Advice pages clearer and easier to use.

The UK statement agreed that “Travel Advice needs to strike a balance between danger and disruption: making public safety its prime concern while minimising the disruption which terrorists want to cause. Advice must inform people of the threat from terrorism. And, when the threat is acute, it 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 disruption which they seek.”

The move is a major victory for industry groupings like Tourism Concern UK and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) which had been among a number of industry associations seeking to revamp the entire travel advisory system.

After the announcement, Tourism Concern issued a statement welcoming the “radical changes” and said it marked the “genuine and overwhelming success” of its campaign “to ensure fair and balanced travel advice.”

“The positive effects of this move will be felt in destinations throughout the world,” said Patricia Barnett, Director of Tourism Concern. “We can no longer just stand aside and watch destinations suffer whilst they have no voice on whether British tourists can visit them or not.”

The UK travel advice goes out to 250,000 people a week via the Foreign Office website and the impact this has on destinations is catastrophic. The most recent example is Indonesia, where FCO travel advice has advised against ‘all non-essential travel’ for over a year and a half.

Says Tourism Concern, “Due to this, the number of tourists travelling to Bali has plummeted with the effects being felt most by the poorest peoples in the destination. Sales revenues have dropped in regions of Indonesia by 71%, with 31% of schools reporting students dropping out during 2003 because their parents could no longer afford to pay basic fees.”

It acknowledged the UK government’s duty to protect British tourists, but found its advice inconsistent with other governments and at risk of causing damage to British tour operators.

It said, “Japan, known for being security conscious, is happy about citizens visiting Bali, and has expressed doubts about UK travel advice. Tourists in the UK cannot buy tours to Bali from THG Tours, but can from THG’s sister company in Germany.”

It noted that after 9/11, the FCO did not take a stand against visiting the US, but Bali – infinitely poorer and more in need of tourism – remains ‘locked up’. It stressed that advisories conflict with the UK Department of International Development message advocating pro-poor tourism.

In its submission to the Foreign Office, PATA had said that travel advisories must be more specifically geographically defined, subject to frequent review, updated and/or removed as soon as possible.

PATA UK Chapter chairman Tim Robinson told the Foreign Office that travel advisories had been the single most talked about issue at the association’s 53rd annual conference in Korea in April 2004, attended by over 2,000 delegates from Pacific Asia and worldwide, including several ministers.

“The FCO should be in no doubt about the strength of feeling they engender. There is a clear unanimity of concern, shared by those countries that have not been subject to advisories as well as those that have.”

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