Simon Calder: The Voice Of Independent Travel

Why Western tourists must not turn their backs on Asia

You and I have learned an awful lot in a week. We now understand something of the geological origins and devastating consequences of tsunamis; we have been made aware just how fragile are the communities on the shores of the Indian Ocean; we have heard tales of extraordinary heroism and humanity; and we can try to comprehend the numbers of lives wrecked by the seismic shudder of 26 December. But there are also many things that we do not know, starting with the fate of hundreds of British tourists.

You and I have learned an awful lot in a week. We now understand something of the geological origins and devastating consequences of tsunamis; we have been made aware just how fragile are the communities on the shores of the Indian Ocean; we have heard tales of extraordinary heroism and humanity; and we can try to comprehend the numbers of lives wrecked by the seismic shudder of 26 December. But there are also many things that we do not know, starting with the fate of hundreds of British tourists.

Many families with relatives travelling in the region have endured six heartbreaking days of uncertainty - heightened by our assumptions of instant contact by e-mail or mobile phone. The missing persons registers that were swiftly organised by the online teams at Lonely Planet and the BBC are mainly studies in despair. But at least the websites offer some prospect of certainty to those on the agonising edge between hope and grief.

The contributions from these independent organisations are in stark contrast to what the Foreign Office offered visitors to its website, www.fco.gov.uk/travel. For the first three days following the earthquake, the website was headed by a red "ATTENTION!" - alerting travellers to a "Global Terrorism Warning". This was a time when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families were desperate for well-chosen advice. Yet the website gave the impression that, in the midst of a natural disaster, the UK Government was still obsessing about global terror. This apparent oversight is a betrayal of the consular staff who are working tirelessly in appalling conditions in the affected countries trying to minimise travellers' anguish.

***

One lesson that every traveller should take from the calamity is the need to keep loved ones informed about journeys. Some already use free online services such as Hotmail to drop a note home saying something as simple as: "Leaving Cusco, heading for the Inca Trail." Other travellers are more sophisticated, and run a weblog through sites such as www.blogger.com - where friends and family can log on at any time to track their travels.

How much better it would be, though, to have a central register. At present, the official advice to travellers in tricky parts of the world is that you should let the British Embassy know where you are. In 30 years of foreign travel I have tried this once: in El Salvador during the civil war, only to find the embassy in San Salvador uninterested. Since then, I haven't bothered; nor do I know anyone who has.

As Richard Trillo of Rough Guides pointed out in The Independent this week: "British representation is scant or poorly resourced" in much of South-east Asia; when Mr Trillo called Our Man in the key tourist location of Penang, Malaysia, he got no answer from the Honorary Consul.

This week I have written to Paul Sizeland, the director of Consular Services at the Foreign Office, urging the creation of a website on which travellers can post their whereabouts. In an emergency, relatives will more easily be able to trace their loved ones - and diplomats will have a much clearer idea of how many people are in the affected area.

The system will not be perfect, because no doubt some travellers will be unable or disinclined to keep their records up-to-date. But it would be an improvement on the prevailing information void.

Another gap in our knowledge: why were the American and British governments so quick to pour billions into an ill-judged military adventure in Iraq (inadvertently precipitating a humanitarian crisis), yet so slow to commit more than a few million to a much wider disaster area? I suspect that even with the Freedom of Information Act that takes effect today, we will not know the answer for some decades.

The shattered communities on the shores of Sri Lanka and Thailand do not have the luxury of time. In both nations, tourism constitutes about six per cent of GDP, but on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka and around the island of Phuket, the local economies depend wholly on travellers' spending.

You may feel it shocking even to consider visiting a part of the world where mass burials are still taking place - as though you would be trespassing on the victims' memories or the survivors' grief. Of course, no traveller should intrude where relief operations are still in progress and they would be a burden to the already overstretched infrastructure. But neither should you shun the region.

From a purely practical point of view, the next few months will be the ideal time to visit the wonderful interior of Sri Lanka: anyone courageous enough to visit the island will find towns and temples uncrowded, and can expect the warmest of welcomes.

Repairing the damage and restoring communities will depend heavily on Western visitors returning to the shores of the Indian Ocean, spending cash freely and demonstrating solidarity with the local people. Your hosts will show immense resilience; I hope we tourists do, too.

At Last The Airlines Get It Right

"A chronically dysfunctional industry" is how British Airways' chairman, Martin Broughton, describes aviation. And so it is, for most of the time. But the airline business has responded magnificently to the needs of distressed travellers. BA itself does not fly to the beleaguered island of Phuket, but has sent a team there to assist its passengers - helping those who have lost their travel documents, and to arrange for people to get home via Bangkok earlier than planned. At a time when seats are scarce and fares are high, BA and its rivals are carrying distraught travellers for next to nothing.

Qantas, which flies daily from the Thai capital to Heathrow, has torn up the rule book. The Australian airline is finding space for distraught travellers regardless of which carrier they are booked on. Emirates, the leading airline serving the Indian Ocean from Britain, is offering the same courtesy - and providing meals and accommodation in Dubai for passengers who have to wait over eight hours for a connecting flight to the UK. Among Britain's tour operators, staff abandoned their family festivities to work on the rescue operation, and charter-flight crews found themselves making unscheduled trips to the disaster area. In the midst of sorrow, the humanity of the travel industry is heartening.

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