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News: Tour firms duck bird flu back-up

The best deals, the latest hot spots and what's new in travel

British package holidaymakers who may end up stranded abroad by a flu pandemic cannot rely on their holiday company to look after them.

So far 68 people in South-east Asia have died from the H5N1 virus, mainly in Vietnam. One scenario being considered by the travel industry is that a flu pandemic could lead to national governments or the World Health Organisation applying a ban on travel to or from a particular country.

Were this to happen, the usual duty of care required of holiday companies could lapse, according to Andrew Cooper, the director-general of the Federation of Tour Operators. He was speaking at a seminar on flu at the Association of British Travel Agents' convention in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.

Tour operators generally accept responsibility for their clients' welfare from the time of departure until they return home. In the recent Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, package holidaymakers were looked after by tour operators, while independent travellers were left to fend for themselves.

But Cooper said that in a scenario where British holidaymakers in a foreign country were not allowed to return home the holiday company could not offer indefinite care.

"We will do everything realistic and reasonable to look after customers. There's an assumption that we'll look after you forever, and I don't think it goes as far as that."

If British holidaymakers were to be stranded, the consular department of the Foreign Office would step in to take responsibility. The FO has not advised against travel to the affected areas.

Holiday companies were also warned that they will need a "treasure chest" of cash to see them through a possible flu epidemic. The virus appears to affect people in their twenties and thirties more seriously than other ages, and many staff working in the travel industry fall within this age range.

NEITHER THE Asian tsunami nor the recent bombings in Bali has reduced the amount of travel, delegates at the Abta convention were told.

Even after the London transport bombings in July, the vast majority of British travellers asked in a survey said they would feel safer in London than in either New York or Madrid.

Less than half the adult population of Britain has gone on holiday in the past year; 22 million people stayed at home. This figure includes 55 per cent of Londoners, even though the capital is the world centre of cheap air travel.

Simon Calder: Something To Declare

Warning of the week: travel to and in Italy

Italian transport workers have a veritable advent calendar of strikes that could disrupt your trip. According to the Foreign Office, industrial action is planned on the following dates: 10 December, noon-4pm, air traffic control Milan Malpensa airport; 12 December, 9am-5pm, trains nationwide. And on 16 December, pilots and air traffic controllers will stage a joint walkout between noon and 4pm. Further strikes are planned on 8, 16, 19, 27 and 30 January. Bargain of the week: one-fifth off maps and travel guides

Plan ahead this month and you could save 20 per cent on guidebooks and maps at one of Stanfords map and travel guide shops. The deal applies on each of the next three Thursday evenings: 8, 15 and 22 December. At Stanfords at 12-14 Long Acre in London, the hours are 6-9pm; at the stores at 29 Corn Street in Bristol and 39 Spring Gardens in Manchester, 6-8pm. You also qualify for free wine and mince pies as you browse the shelves.