British tourists look to the Foreign Office for advice on where it is safe to travel. But the truth is, even they can't really know
As the survivors of last week's hostage siege in Yemen tell their stories, spare a thought for Victor Henderson, the British ambassador. On Tuesday he described the chances of being kidnapped in Yemen as no different from those of being mugged in London, and said he was confident the hostages would be safe. A few hours later, four tourists, three of them British, were dead.

In the wake of such incidents the Foreign Office is often criticised for failing to foresee them. Mr Henderson's comments were made "on previous form", as he put it: the same day the form changed. If it is confirmed that the Yemeni authorities knew of a threat to British subjects but did not tell the embassy, the limits of what our diplomats can do to protect us will be even clearer. We appear to be ambivalent in what we expect of the Foreign Office. On one hand we insist on pushing into ever more remote parts of the world; on the other we seem surprised our representatives are not aware of every risk we might encounter.

More than 500 British diplomats and honorary consuls are on hand in 145 countries to assist British nationals if they hit problems, but increasing effort is being put into avoiding trouble in the first place through "travel advisories", which outline the dangers as far as they are known.

There were complaints in the wake of the Yemen killings that Britain had not counselled against travelling to the country. The Foreign Office replied that its "travel advisory" on Yemen clearly warned that foreigners were often kidnapped, although it added, correctly at the time, that none had been harmed. This was quickly amended on Tuesday. Britons are now warned against all non-essential travel to Yemen, and British tourists already there are advised to leave as soon as possible.

THERE HAVE been suggestions, from backpacking travel companies among others, that travel advisories are influenced by politics. In Egypt a little over a year ago, gunmen massacred 58 tourists, six of them British, but the travel advisory, while giving a detailed rundown of the risks, adds what might appear a sop to Egyptian sensibilities: "More than 100,000 British nationals visit Egypt each year. Most enjoy a trouble-free stay."

Is the Foreign Office more likely to advise against going to countries with which we have poor relations, and, conversely, to play down the dangers in countries we do not wish to offend? The diplomats insist this is not the case. "We often get complaints from other countries that our advisories are hurting their image or damaging tourism," said a spokesman, "but our prime concern is the safety of the British travelling public".

Information for the advisories comes primarily from the people on the ground, but they can never be infallible. As the Yemeni experience shows, governments may withhold crucial facts. Travel companies such as Explore Worldwide, which took the tourists to Yemen, may often be better informed about conditions far from the capital than our embassy staff.

In many countries where Britons could be subject to arbitrary mistreatment, such as Burma, there are tight restrictions on foreign diplomats as well. Any British envoy who made contact with an opposition figure on the run from the regime would soon be declared non grata. Knowledge of what the opposition is up to, therefore, is necessarily limited. But Burma is not on the list of "no-go" countries, whereas Pakistan, a country in which Britain has a far stronger diplomatic presence, and arguably more influence, is ruled inadvisable for all but essential business.

There are other surprises. Britain accuses Libya of exporting terrorism, notably in the case of the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie, and has no diplomatic relations with Tripoli, but travel to Libya is not ruled out. The country has many British war graves dating back to the North African campaign in the Second World War, and does not interfere with relatives who want to visit them.

Reading the Foreign Office travel advisories can give the impression that Abroad is an unknowable and dangerous place, and at first glance the statistics reinforce that view. Every day five Britons die overseas, a total of 1,827 in 1997.

But Abroad is safer than it seems. In 1997 there were nearly 47 million trips overseas by British residents, making the number who never return seem minuscule. By far the majority - just over 1,400 - died of natural causes, and more than a third of the rest in motor accidents. One can assume alcohol is to blame in many cases, particularly on learning that Spain accounted for just over half the 20 people killed in falls from windows or balconies.

Take out the 62 suicides and the 68 deaths during leisure activities such as skiing, swimming and diving, and 48 Britons died abroad in 1997 from murder or manslaughter, by no means all terrorism-related. Given that millions of Britons are abroad at any one time, very few have cause for alarm.

A century ago, foreign travel was confined to the wealthy and aristocratic, who could often expect to be a guest of the British representative in whatever capital they found themselves. No such relationship is possible in an era of mass travel, yet many of our attitudes remain more appropriate to the 19th century, according to a Foreign Office source.

"Some British travellers still consider themselves to be above the law, and are astonished that the British consul cannot spring them from jail," he said. "The same people assume that the consul will give them money to get home. There are no public funds for this purpose, although we will put them in touch with relatives or friends in Britain who can help."

NOWHERE is too far away for Brits to get into trouble - last year a British backpacker wandered by mistake from China into North Korea, a country with which we have no diplomatic relations, and one where foreign travel is stringently controlled. To the North Koreans, the idea that a person could roam where he pleased without the say-so of his government was a thin cover for his real mission: to spy on them. It took long negotiations between the British and North Korean delegations to the United Nations before he got out.

But if it is dangerous to underplay the risks Abroad, it can be just as harmful to exaggerate them, because travellers may stop taking advisories seriously. It is just over a year since the US State Department covered itself in ridicule by suggesting that in the light of killings in Egypt and Pakistan, and military tension with Iraq, Americans should not go abroad, full stop. Not to London, or Toronto, or Copenhagen. Since Lockerbie, the US government has been legally responsible for the advice it gives its citizens travelling abroad, but in this case the effect was to render its advice useless.

British advisories carry a legal disclaimer, but the Foreign Office prefers to err on the side of caution. This does not always please those affected, such as the outraged British tourist interviewed on television after being plucked from the beach at Eilat and flown home by his tour operator in November, when we nearly came to blows with Iraq. Less than a month later, of course, we did. "Far better a live complainant than a citizen who died because he didn't heed political advice," was the response.

The Foreign Office stresses that advisories are just that: advice. Common sense is required as well. "Near where I live there is a travel agent still advertising holidays in Iraq," said a diplomat, "but surely nobody would imagine that because the agent is selling trips it is all right to go there."