The Gambia state of emergency and what it means for tourists: All your questions, answered

Simon Calder answers your questions about the evacuation and its implications

Simon Calder
Thursday 19 January 2017 16:04 GMT
British tourists are being evacuated from Banjul, the capital of The Gambia
British tourists are being evacuated from Banjul, the capital of The Gambia (Getty)

The airlift to bring thousands of British holidaymakers home from The Gambia is well under way, following the Foreign Office warning against all but essential travel to the West African nation.

Q What’s the political background?

The president, Yahya Jammeh, lost in an election last month to Adama Barrow, but on the eve of when he was due to hand over power declared a state of emergency instead. Reports suggest there is a high level of tension and uncertainty.

The British High Commission in the capital, Banjul, believes that the volatile situation “could result in Banjul International Airport being closed at short notice”. Rather than risking UK holidaymakers being stranded in a country where the only other way out involved a long and difficult overland journey via Senegal, the decision was taken to put The Gambia on the “no-go” list.

Q What are the implications of the Foreign Office advising against travel?

People on package holidays can expect to be flown home as soon as an airlift can be organised. The tour operator has a duty of care which includes removing customers from a country or region that is deemed to be dangerous. People who have travelled to Banjul independently on flight-only arrangements are not entitled to emergency repatriation.

Q Why is there a distinction?

Legally, every package holiday comes with robust consumer protection including the requirement to remove customers from areas of danger as swiftly as possible. A straightforward plane ticket has no such protection. For example, I can easily buy a flight from a range of UK airports on Brussels Airlines via the Belgian capital to Banjul. The fact that the British government advises against a trip is not the carrier’s problem — it is merely honouring a contract to provide transportation.

Having said that, Thomas Cook is going beyond its statutory responsibilities to ensure “the earliest possible flight availability for return to the UK” for independent travellers. Many flight-only customers are coming back on the rescue flights on Thursday and Friday, but some are staying put — mostly people with family in The Gambia.

Q What happens about travel insurance?

While the airlift is being organised, travellers continue to be covered. But once planes are available, anyone who chooses not to depart will find that their travel insurance policy is invalidated. A typical policy says any claim “arising as a result of your travel to a country or specific area or event to which the Travel Advice Unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the World Health Organisation has advised the public not to travel” will be rejected.

Q How difficult is it to organise an airlift from a country like The Gambia?

There is never a good time for an emergency evacuation to be deployed, but for one to happen the middle of the week in the middle of January is about as benign as it gets; there are plenty of planes and crews around to begin an airlift without disrupting other plans.

The main complications arise on the ground in The Gambia — contacting independent travellers, and managing the airport handling. Package holidaymakers tend to be easy to contact, because the travel company knows where they are staying. But independent travellers are more difficult to manage. Thomas Cook has used social media to contact customers and advise them of the options to depart.

Banjul airport is small and congested. This is particularly significant because of the long flying time to The Gambia. In order for crew to stay within their legal hours, turn-rounds must be swift — and so Thomas Cook has flown in managers to help with check-in and ground handling.

Q I can still buy a holiday in The Gambia. Is it legal — or moral — for companies to sell these while tourists are being told to get out quick?

It’s perfectly legitimate, and there are some good deals around; a trip to Kotu Beach from Birmingham on 14 February for a week costs barely £500, including accommodation with breakfast.

The hope is that the political crisis will abate, and that the Foreign Office will lift its advice. Holiday companies will continue to sell future trips in the belief that they will be able to operate them as planned. If the ban persists, though, travellers will be able to claim full refunds.

Q I have a future booking for The Gambia. What are my options?

Again, the options for package holidaymakers and flight-only travellers are different. Anyone who has just an air ticket has no legal entitlement for a refund or a change of destination, though some airlines will allow this.

For package holidaymakers: if a trip does not go ahead because of Foreign Office advice, travellers are entitled to a full refund. For later dates, some holiday companies are likely to offer limited free amendments for impending trips until the situation in The Gambia becomes clearer.

Q But I have a holiday booking for November, and I no longer want to go. What can I do?

You can certainly ask the tour operator if you could switch your departure, but at this stage you are unlikely to get a positive response. Ten months is a long time in West Africa, and it seems fair to allow travel companies to assess the situation closer to departure.

Q Was putting The Gambia on the “no-go” list an overreaction?

Some travel-industry figures have privately said that they are concerned about the timing of the announcement. They hint the move was partly dictated by the course of the inquest into the deaths of 30 British holidaymakers in the massacre on the beach in Sousse, Tunisia in June 2015.

Claims have been made that the Foreign Office should have put Tunisia on the danger list earlier, after an attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital three months before. The implication from the industry sources is that the British Government is keen to avoid such accusations in future, and therefore is opting for the “safe” choice of warning against travel.

Yet the suggestion of an “abundance of caution” appears to be misplaced. Indeed, the US government called on all its citizens — and families of diplomats — to leave The Gambia 10 days before the UK decision.

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