What now for travellers to South-east Asia?

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Esther Shaw finds out what the British tourists affected can claim on their insurance, and looks at the options for those due to visit the region soon

The full scale of the tragedy is still unfolding in South-east Asia but what is known is that many of those affected by the devastating tsunami were holidaymakers enjoying a winter break.

The full scale of the tragedy is still unfolding in South-east Asia but what is known is that many of those affected by the devastating tsunami were holidaymakers enjoying a winter break.

While most British tourists have now been flown home, there remains much confusion over whether claims can be made for holidays that were ruined. Much will depend on how the trip was arranged and the wording of individual travel insurance policies.

Those who booked package holidays through a tour operator are better protected - some were flown home early at the cost of the company. However, independent travellers are likely to find that their policy covers some but not all of their costs, says Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta).

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) insists that most travel policies will pay out for lost possessions and medical expenses incurred as a result of the natural disaster. For example, Sainsbury's Bank says it will look to cover claims from customers caught in the disaster "where possible" - reviewing claims on a case-by-case basis.

Now, if you are due to go on holiday in the region, the British Insurance Brokers' Association (Biba) recommends you first contact your tour operator or airline to establish whether your trip is going ahead.

Check for up-to-date travel guidance issued by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) for the country you are planning to visit. Do this right up until the time of departure in case of any late changes.

The FCO is still advising, for example, against non-essential travel to parts of Sri Lanka and towns along the west coast of Thailand.

If, like many, you have a tour operator holiday planned during January to one of the areas worst affected, Mr Tipton says you will be offered either alternative destinations, amended itiner- aries, deferred holidays or a refund. "These options apply until 31 January but we will be monitoring progress in the affected areas and the date may be extended."

If you had planned to travel independently to one of the regions that has been hit, most insurers will look at your claim on a case-by-case basis. Contact the airline you are flying with for advice.

Of course, even if the area you were planning to visit has been deemed "safe" for travel, you may still want to cancel your holiday because of the disaster. If that is the case, tour operators are not obliged to offer alternatives, and the ABI warns that cancellation claims are not necessarily covered. Check the wording of your policy.

As for those who have planned to take a holiday in one of the affected areas later in the year, tour operators are urging that they sit tight. The companies say they will contact customers nearer the time of departure if it is necessary to change plans.

However, Mr Tipton is optimistic that many of the resorts will be back in business shortly, and says some have already reopened for business. "While the west coast of Thailand has been affected, the east coast has not and still offers a lot of resorts. Remember, no tour operator will offer a holiday unless it is safe for you to travel."

He also points out that, in many cases, travellers will be helping rather than hindering if they go ahead with trips to South- east Asia.

"Businesses in these areas are heavily reliant on the tourist trade," he says. "If people do not visit, the cost will be huge."

And even if, when you reach your holiday destination, you cannot face lying on a beach, you could join the scores of travellers who have gone to offer a little help amid the suffering.

The FCO has advice on 0870 606 0290 and www.fco.gov.uk. Also go to www.biba.org.uk, www.abi.org.uk, www.abta.com

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