danger zones

A brief guide on where not to go for your holidays, by Simon Calder, the Independent's travel editor
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Nothing in the guerrilla's repertoire compares with a Western hostage. Revolutionary movements can engage in bitter struggles for years without the world taking much notice. Capture a tourist, though, and suddenly the conflict will be plastered all over the Western media. The more important tourism is to the national economy, the greater the bargaining power. The surprise is that so few guerrilla groups have caught on - so far.

To see the world without becoming a bargaining chip in someone else's war, one good plan is to sign up with a tour. Kidnappers are more attracted to a handful of potential hostages with no fixed itinerary than a whole busload of backpackers. If you are abducted, the Foreign Office will attend to its consular duties through clenched teeth.

The FO would probably prefer us all to go Benidorm, rather than becoming embroiled in foreign quarrels. While the French and German governments might negotiate with their citizens' captors, British diplomats are wary of yielding concessions, for fear of establishing a precedent and unleasing an epidemic of backpacker-bagging around the world. Official advice is easy to find (see Helplines, below). Along with a consignment of common sense and an ear for local advice, it should ensure you will be captivated rather than captured on your travels.


Like war correspondents, guide-book writers tend to be a fearless breed. But Daniel Robinson, the author of Cambodia: a Travel Survival Kit, believes the risk of capture by the Khmer Rouge to be so high that he has refused to return to the country to work on the next edition. The Khmer Rouge is continuing the murderous tradition begun during the regime of Pol Pot, and backpackers who stray off the beaten track can expect no mercy. The beaten track in this case is the capital, Phnom Penh, and the temples of Angkor Wat - but only if you arrive by air.


Kidnapping is almost a national sport in the cities of Bogota, Cali and Medellin. Yet although organised criminals routinely target the wealthy and their children, Western tourists need worry only about the problems of petty crime. Last year, left-wing guerrillas stopped a bus containing a British tour group in southern Colombia, but the visitors were treated well and allowed to continue after being held for four hours. The Colombian tradition of good manners evidently extends to members of the Revolutionary Army.


The Kashmiri separatists who seized three British backpackers in Delhi last October took a leaf out of someone else's book: Lonely Planet's, to be precise, whose guide-book to India helped them track down suitable Western prey. But Jennifer Cox of Lonely Planet says, "Taking one of our books doesn't make you a target. We warn readers about risky areas, including Kashmir. The real problem isn't the people who know the dangers, but the people who don't."


The Shining Path started it all. This Maoist terrorist group, now subdued by the Peruvian authorities, realised the political potential of Western tourists a decade ago. By targetting foreign travellers, it severely damaged the country's tourist trade. London-based Journey Latin America continued its programme of trips to Peru throughout the conflict. "Peru was most dangerous early on the campaign, before people in the West were aware of the dangers", says JLA's Chris Parrott. These days, travellers arriving in the capital, Lima, can visit the tourist office for a thorough briefing about areas that are felt still to be at risk from the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and its splinter, the Sendero Rojo.

With the leaders of the Shining Path behind bars, visitor numbers are climbing back to their level in the early Eighties - and the country is discovering a longer-term consequence of the tourists-as-targets philosophy. Investment in tourism infrastructure effectively ceased for some years, and so in peak season there are not enough good hotel rooms to go around.


British tourism to Turkey has bounced back this summer, with a predicted increase of one-third in visitor numbers to 800,000. Most are bound for the beach resorts in the west and south, rather than the area in the southeast where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is active - kidnapping backpackers in each of the last two summers. The Foreign Office expects more attacks this year, and says travellers should not go there "unless on essential business." Elsewhere, the FO predicts further attacks in tourist areas, similar to the bombing last summer in which a British tourist died.


The Foreign Office issues travel advice on 0171-270 4129, on BBC-2 Ceefax page 564 onwards, and on the Internet at http://www.fco.gov.uk/. Specific advice for Turkey is available on 0374 500986, and for India on 0374 500935.