Congo: Why do people go and is it still safe to visit the DRC?

Foreign Office advices against travel to much of the east of the country

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Saturday 12 May 2018 13:19
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British people kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Simon Calder explains

Two British tourists are reported to have been kidnapped in Virunga National Park in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

A female park ranger travelling with them is report to have been killed.

Simon Calder assesses the dangers of travel to the region.

Q What is the draw to this part of Africa?

It is an extremely alluring region: green and mountainous, with people who, for the most part, are extremely friendly and helpful. But the main attraction is primate tourism. Encounters with mountain gorillas are much sought-after. They are found only in the Virunga Massif (a chain of eight volcanoes spanning eastern DRC, western Rwanda and western Uganda), and in the adjoining Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the southwest corner of Uganda.

As with other species, human intervention has dramatically reduced the number of mountain gorillas. They were targeted by hunters in the early 20th century; human encroachment on their territory since then has been even more destructive. Today, fewer than 1,000 survive. They are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Primate tourism is well-established in Uganda and Rwanda. Exactly one year ago, Rwanda doubled the cost of permits to visit mountain gorillas from $750 (£550) to $1,500.

As a result, demand from budget travellers keen for an encounter with the primates has shifted to Uganda and the DRC. In addition, according to Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler, in DRC: “The waiting list is much shorter and the experience is probably a little less commercial.”

Tourism target: A silverback gorilla in Virunga National Park, eastern DRC

Q Is it safe?

According to the Foreign Office, the risks are tolerably low in Rwanda and Uganda - though the latter was the location for a horrific attack on tourists in 1999, in which eight tourists, including four British travellers, were butchered. But the Foreign Office warns against travel to almost all of eastern DRC, where the couple were reportedly kidnapped.

The FCO says: “The security situation in eastern DRC remains unstable. The continued presence of armed groups, military operations against them, intercommunal violence and an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries all contribute to a deterioration in the political, security and humanitarian situation.

“There are continued reports of kidnappings, including of staff from international NGOs.

“Tourists in eastern DRC have been known to be left very vulnerable as a result of trying to travel independently without escorted transport, and the risk of kidnap or injury as a result of armed or criminal activity remains high.”

Q Where did the kidnap take place?

In the vast Virunga National Park, which is about the size of Devon and lies at the extreme east of the DRC, adjoining Uganda and sharing the Rwenzori Mountains. The Foreign Office warns: “Armed groups are sometimes active within the park.”

Few UK travel firms offer trips to the region, because of the Foreign Office warning against travel. But the adventure operator Wild Frontiers is selling a two-week trip in November 2018: a two-week trip selling for £5,700.

The founder, Jonny Bealby, travelled to the region in November 2017 with the broadcaster, Kate Humble. He wrote: “I am more convinced than ever that there is something exciting happening in this forgotten part of Africa and can’t wait to start helping others discover it.

“Through no fault of their own the people of the Congo have suffered hugely in recent times. Corrupt officials, indifferent international geopolitics and ruthless multinationals and their desire for specialist minerals, have all played a part in creating the country’s current situation.”

Kate Humble, broadcaster; John Kehekwam, primatologist and conservationist; and Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers

Q Will the UK government be able to help the kidnap victims?

The Foreign Office makes it sound unlikely: “The lack of infrastructure throughout the country and continued insecurity in eastern DRC often prevent the British Embassy in Kinshasa [the capital, in the far west of DRC] from being able to extend normal levels of consular assistance to British nationals anywhere in the DRC other than Kinshasa.”

In addition, the FCO has a long-standing policy of never paying or facilitating ransoms.

Q What about travel insurance?

Standard travel insurance is invalidated if the policyholder chooses to visit a dangerous region: one standard policy from a large insurer says: “You are covered as long as the FCO has not advised against travel to the country or specific region.”

Some NGO staff, journalists and people with relatives in risky areas have special policies which cover risky areas, but it is expensive: one such policy costs £50 for a week, and it is questionable whether people who are visiting the DRC in order to save cash would invest in expensive insurance.

Q How frequent are kidnappings?

According to Voyager Insurance Services, which specialises in high-risk travel: “Every year there are more than 40,000 kidnappings globally.” That works out at one every 13 minutes on average.

The insurer adds: “Most kidnappings occur to obtain a ransom and few victims are rescued or released safely without ransoms being paid.

“Unfortunately you cannot rely on government support and they certainly won’t pay any ransom demand for you.”

Kidnappings in eastern DRC are frequent, with most victims being Congolese.

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