Travel firms search for 10,000 British holidaymakers

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The Independent Online

Travel operators and embassy staff were working around the clock to find the estimated 10,000 British holidaymakers caught up in the devastation caused by yesterday's tsunami.

Hundreds of travellers are thought to be stranded in some of the more isolated and badly hit parts of the region. British embassy officials and holiday tour reps have been travelling to coastal areas to co-ordinate the evacuation of the Britons.

The Foreign Office has issued warnings not to travel to the worst affected areas, while empty airliners were being sent to the region to bring holidaymakers home early.

The emergency telephone number set up by the Foreign Office to answer enquiries from those concerned for loved ones was deluged with enquiries throughout yesterday, with controllers describing the volume of calls as among the highest number ever experienced for a mass casualty incident.

But anxious relatives expressed frustration at the lines being continuously engaged. Lesley Cox, from Oxted, who has not heard from her daughter, Katy, 28, holidaying in Kerala, said: "We are desperately worried and I have been trying to get through all day, but have not managed to do so. It makes it so much more stressful, because you are then using a telephone line that she could be trying to get through on."

The Foreign Office sent an eight-strong rapid deployment team of consular to the Sri-Lankan capital of Colombo. Consular staff will attempt to land in the city of Galle in the south of the island by helicopter today and are also heading towards the devastated city of Male in the Maldives. Two empty charter flights left Manchester and Gatwick yesterday, heading for Colombo and and were also heading for the devastated city of Male in the Maldives to bring holidaymakers home. Four such flights were expected to leave for the Maldives last night.

The Sri Lankan consulate is also hoping to get a member of staff to the Maldives by today.

An emergency team from the British embassy in Bangkok is making a seven- hour journey by road to Phuket. David Fall, the British ambassador to Thailand, is among those travelling to Phuket. Keith Betton, head of corporate affairs at the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), which represents the package holiday companies, estimated that about 10,000 package holidaymakers were in the area.

He said: "The first thing we have got to do is find all the holidaymakers and make sure they are safe and ok. This is a challenge in some areas. But within 24 hours it should become a lot easier."

He said that the holiday companies would be working through lists of clients, but that there was no way of knowing how many independent travellers had been affected.

In the Maldives, holiday representatives were telephoning the hotels to check on conditions, but in the worst hit parts of Sri Lanka, where the telephone system had been destroyed, they were having to make their way along badly damaged roads.

Travel firms spent yesterday trying to contact hundreds of holidaymakers who were due to fly from Britain to disaster-hit regions to warn them that their flights had been cancelled. They will be offered a refund or alternative holidays. A significant number, however, could not be reached on Boxing Day and are expected to turn up at the airport today.

"This is likely to continue for a number of days, or weeks," warned Mr Betton. He did, however, advise holidaymakers to contact their tour operators or travel agents for advice.

"We are just making assessments at the moment as to where it is fine to leave people and where it is important to take people out, and arranging flights to bring them home, and forward cancelling holidays for people about to go," he said.

The Federation of Tour Operators said that tour operators were urgently making the necessary arrangements to move those at risk to safety. The Foreign Office emergency telephone number is 020 7008 0000.