The danger signs: Many of the world's top destinations come with a travel warning
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 17 September 2011
One line in the official Foreign Office travel advice for Kenya that prevailed last Saturday was, with hindsight, chillingly precise: "Any travel to remote areas or border regions could put you at risk of being the target of attacks or kidnappings".
On that day, David and Judith Tebbutt flew to the luxury Kiwayu Safari Village on the north coast of Kenya, the last resort before the border with Somalia. In the early hours of Sunday morning, an armed gang attacked them in their villa; Mr Tebbutt was shot and killed, and his wife was abducted.
On an average day, 500 British tourists arrive in Kenya. Most have great experiences in a wild and wonderful nation with friendly, helpful people. But this tragedy, as with previous high-profile cases, inevitably concentrates travellers' minds on the risks involved.
Since the attack, the authorities in Nairobi have sought to calm fears among foreign holidaymakers: the tourism minister vowed "to ensure the safety of all our visitors". Which is, sadly, an impossibility. The Foreign Office warns: "There is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya"; it notes "incidents of armed car-hijackings are more prevalent in Nairobi and Mombasa but can occur in any area of the country"; and urges anyone heading for the most popular Indian Ocean island to fly: "Vehicles on the road to Lamu have been attacked by armed robbers in the past; overland travel from Lamu to Malindi should only be undertaken in an armed police convoy."
These are not exceptionally strong warnings. Many popular tourist destinations carry significant risks, and yet most tourists encounter no problems.
The Foreign Office stops short of advising holidaymakers to steer clear of Kenya, apart from warning against "all but essential travel" within 30km of the Somali border (Kiwayu is 50km from the frontier). This wording invalidates travel insurance for anyone who ignores the advice, and it is used judiciously. During the uprising in Egypt, for example, the UK was about the only government to judge – correctly – that Red Sea resorts would remain calm and safe. Western governments do not always agree: the FCO places no restrictions on Indonesia, while its Australian equivalent urges citizens to stay away.
In recent years the Foreign Office has transformed its provision of advice to travellers, becoming more adroit at providing solid, well-targeted warnings. One of its latest bulletins, for example, alerts rugby fans to the dreadful road accident record of the World Cup host nation, New Zealand.
The efforts of the travel industry authorities look increasingly feeble in comparison: Abta's code of conduct says merely: "Before a contract is made, [holiday firms must] advise their clients of the availability of any advice issued by the FCO." So, for a trip to, say, Trinidad the sole responsibility is to draw attention to the existence official advice exists, rather than actually warning travellers that a curfew is in force because of some extreme gang-related violence. And while the Package Travel Regulations wax eloquently about the need for tour operators to tell travellers everything from the star-rating of hotel rooms to health formalities, they are silent about threats to safety.
The final decision to go, or not, rests with the traveller. Official advice (such as the examples from around the world, right) is useful, but the best source of information remains other travellers – augmented by sources such as the BBC World Service.
Case study: Nigeria 'I handed over my wallet and mobile phone. I had no more to give'
By Nick Kochan
"He's a white monkey: fire him!" The scariest moment of my life. I was face down on the earth, gripping the ground. I had already pulled my wallet from my pocket and handed it over. I had already given my mobile phone. I had no more to give.
That day in the middle of last month had started as most Nigerian days start, with a negotiation. I had wanted to visit the town of Ife, from Lagos, but needed to hire a taxi. There was a negotiation on the phone and a price was agreed. There was another negotiation when I got in the taxi, as it was not clear to the taxi driver that I wanted to visit Ife (the site of several archaeological treasures, and the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba people of south-west Nigeria) rather than the closer town of Ibadan. I conceded all he wanted, I was keen to get started.
The vehicle was a smallish red car, part of the Red Taxis fleet. The roads to Ife were bumpy and potholed, and it was drizzling. It was the middle of the afternoon before we reached Ibadan, and the driver said it would take between an hour and a half and two hours to get to Ife. (I had been told at the outset it would take just three hours for the whole journey.) By then it would be dark and it was wet, so there seemed little point carrying on.
We would return to Lagos. After dinner in Ibadan, we started back. The road was clearer than before and we whipped along at speed, overtaking wildly many trucks, my driver hooting erratically and flashing his lights to clear a path.
Then, suddenly, we stopped. I was in the back, so I couldn't see exactly what lay ahead. But a crowd of cars was bunched up. We were near a town called Shagamu, on a road ambitiously designated the A1. Unexpectedly, inexplicably, my driver reversed, straight into the car behind. He hit it. Then he opened his door and ran. I head him say: "Escape, they're dangerous."
A large number of cars and lorries had stopped, their lights on, their driver doors open, their engines running. They were empty. Then I saw a man peer out of the undergrowth bordering the road. I thought he was another driver, until he said: "Get down! Money." I handed him my wallet and mobile phone. Another man, red scarf around his head, said: "Don't move, or I'll shoot you." I stayed rigid. I listened intently. A grasshopper clicked. At first it clicked haphazardly, then more regularly. That calmed me.
Time passed – how long I couldn't say. I turned to look at the scene. Numerous cars and trucks on the dual carriage way, all stacked up, lights on. It was dark, doors were open, engines turning over. There were no drivers, no signs of human life.
I stayed that way until some men passed by carrying large machine guns. They didn't identify themselves; they could have been bandits.
"Police?" I asked. Police, they said. I took their arrival as a sign the danger had passed, that the bandits had escaped. I went to my taxi, and as the driver had not reappeared, wondered how I might drive it away.
Eventually, though, my driver returned, looking pale and sweaty. He was eager to claim that he had shouted at me to follow him to the other side of the road, where he had hidden in the bushes. I told him I heard him say "escape" and that was all. The other drivers also returned to their cars, and in due course, they moved off. The road cleared. The event passed.
Back in Lagos, I found out the nation's papers had highlighted concerns from local politicians that safety on Nigeria's roads was deteriorating. It seemed my experience was not uncommon. Indeed, colleagues based locally said I was "asking for it", by travelling after dark outside the comparative safety of Nigeria's largest city.
I'd put my life at risk through ignorance of this simple but scarcely obvious piece of guidance. However this week's tragedy in Kenya, still unresolved, highlights the slim line that often exists between security and violent crime in areas that are, for tourists, some of the most alluring parts of the world.
Nick Kochan is a financial journalist. He was visiting Nigeria to write about the country's capital markets
Trouble in paradise?
“One in four murder victims in Tijuana [the border city facing San Diego] is an innocent bystander. Public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centres and other public venues as well as large firefights have occurred in Tijuana” Foreign Office
"Al Qaeda and other networks inspired by religious extremism have specifically targeted western interests” Foreign Office
“Adhere to prudent security practices such as avoiding predictable travel patterns and maintaining a low profile” US State Department
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
“There are high levels of violent crime, especially shootings and kidnappings. British nationals have been victims of violent attacks, particularly in Tobago where law enforcement is weak” Foreign Office
“Violent crime is a serious problem, and the capital city of Caracas has been cited as having one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. Kidnappings, assaults and robberies occur throughout the country” US State Department
“Express kidnappings - short-term, opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim - are occurring in Bolivia … There has been a significant increase in cases of rabies associated with dogs” Foreign Office
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
“There is a constant and high terrorist threat throughout the Arabian Peninsula … maintain a high level of vigilance and personal security awareness at all times. Caution should be particularly exercised in areas known to be frequented by foreigners” Canadian government
“We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, at this time due to the very high threat of terrorist attack … There is a risk of rabies throughout Indonesia, in particular Bali” Australian government
“There is a high threat of terrorism in Thailand. Bomb and grenade attacks have been indiscriminate, including in places visited by expatriates and foreign travellers. Sporadic attacks continue in Bangkok and Chiang Mai” Foreign Office
“Bombings have also occurred in both government and public facilities in Manila which resulted in a number of deaths and injuries to bystanders. Kidnap-for-ransom gangs operate in the Philippines and sometimes target foreigners” US State Department
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