Is official advice to travellers worth taking seriously? By Simon Calder
R oad 13 is lucky for some British travellers. This battered old excuse for a highway, which winds north through Laos from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, is singled out as being relatively safe - at least compared with the onward journey to Luang Prabang, where the visitor risks attack by bandits. On balance, journeys should be made by air wherever possible.

This information arrived on my desk on Monday. Not a dispatch from some battle-hardened correspondent tottering through Indo-China in search of a story, but from a nicely refurbished office in Palace Street, SW1 - just across the fence from the Queen's London residence.

As your passport will testify, the Foreign Secretary "requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty, all those whom it may concern" to allow British citizens to travel freely and safely. But on the basis that this invocation carries less immediate weight than a loaded Kalashnikov, the Government also employs people to try to protect us. If the world cannot immediately be made a safer place, the theory goes, then at least we should be told which parts to avoid. Yet are we being told the whole truth, and nothing but?

"Selective, patchy, sloppily compiled, often out-of-date and slow to catch up, far too brief." Richard Trillo, who writes for the Rough Guides, pronounced himself unimpressed with the advice that the Foreign Office provides to the traveller. One reason for these perceived shortcomings, he suggests, is political manoeuvring carried out "in the furtherance of commercial and diplomatic ends".

"Complete rubbish," retorted a Foreign Office spokesman.

It seemed diplomatic to get the two parties together, and to eavesdrop on the subsequent conversation. So when Mr Trillo called in on the Travel Advice Unit to see how the system works, and to argue about its effectiveness, I tagged along.

The system has a lean simplicity: British missions abroad report about the risks on their patch. Sometimes these warnings come in response to specific events, such as kidnappings or killings of British subjects abroad. More usually, they are routine reports, such as the one which arrived on Monday warning of the "high level of violent street crime" in the West African state of Guinea.

A small staff compiles the information and distributes it: faxes are dispatched to the travel trade and newspapers; details are processed for the screen, both BBC2 Ceefax and the Internet; and files are updated to respond to calls from individual tourists, 79,000 of whom phoned the advice unit last year. Details of how you can keep yourself informed are given below. But what most concerns Mr Trillo is the quality of the information.

Selective and patchy: advice issued by the Foreign Office does not cover the globe. Why should places such as Korea and Cyprus be overlooked, even though each is a divided nation with a tense front line? Some years ago the FO produced notes on every country in the world, but stopped because the results were little used. Jeremy Hanley, the minister responsible for consular services, says that he sees little value in consistency for its own sake and that there is "no need and no demand for FO advice on every country". In the case of Cyprus, advice was issued following violence on the Green Line and an outbreak of meningitis last month. It has now been withdrawn. But British visitors to the island (almost 1 million of them last year) can still obtain a Dos and Don'ts leaflet from the FO.

Far too brief: Mr Trillo cites the advice for the Czech Republic as being "particularly worthless". On Ceefax recently, the would-be visitor to Prague was advised that he or she "should carry identification at all times, preferably a photocopy of their passport, with the passports being securely stored i.e. [sic] in a hotel safe etc." The FO says the poor English was a result of editing errors by Ceefax, and stands by its policy of brevity. "Our experience shows that we can best get our message across by keeping it short and clear, rather like news headlines which flag up the key points," a spokesman explains. The service aims to point up potential problems rather than give chapter and verse.

Sloppily compiled, often out-of-date and slow to respond: A prime piece of evidence for this, says Mr Trillo, is the advice on Western Sahara. This disputed slice of Africa, pinched between Morocco and Mauritania, is one of the 10 countries that the Government says is too dangerous to visit. Yet at least nine British overland companies traverse Western Sahara, carrying hundreds of travellers en route for southern Africa. Mr Trillo points out that they do this on the basis of years of experience, and would not jeopardise clients' safety. The British Embassy in Morocco has subsequently tweaked its advice, but the FO says "our assessment is that the area is best avoided. The fact that some overland travellers choose to ignore our advice does not in itself make the place safe."

Which brings us to the crucial question of political pressure. The word of the Foreign Office is law as far as most tour operators are concerned. Once the FO says "don't go", Thomson and the other holiday companies organise airlifts to bring home clients already at the destination and cancel subsequent flights. The most notable recent "victim" of this policy was the Gambia, whose visitor numbers from Britain were greatly reduced after a little local difficulty in winter 1994/95. The Foreign Office maintains that its advice against travel there was justified because of the potential risks to British holidaymakers; the Gambian tourist industry, and numerous correspondents to The Independent, contend that the decision was a politically motivated reprisal against a regime that the British Government didn't like.

The FO "rejects completely the suggestion that our advice is subordinated to commercial and diplomatic ends, and are concerned that such a perception still exists. Our paramount concern is the safety of British nationals overseas. We have had protests from foreign governments about our advice, which should in itself testify to its integrity and independence." Jeremy Hanley firmly refutes the suggestion that the Government would actually prefer us all to stay at home - indeed, his daughter is currently travelling through Asia.

Richard Trillo and the Foreign Office have agreed to differ on the travel advice policy. He wants much more comprehensive information, along the lines of the detailed briefings issued by the US State Department. The FO want to preserve the status quo. But since the visit, there have been some changes. Contact details for all UK missions now appear on the Internet.

I get the distinct impression that the travel advice bulletins that arrive on my desk are becoming increasingly precise, and therefore more valuable. When I finally make it to Laos, I shall beware of "unexploded ordnance, particularly in Xieng Khouang Province and areas of the Laos-Vietnam border that were formerly traversed by the Ho Chi Minh trail". Be careful out there.

Find Foreign Office travel advice on tel: 0171-238 4503, fax: 0171-238 4545, on BBC2 Ceefax from page 564 onwards, or at on the Internet.