How much faith do you have in government travel advice? Not so long ago our trust was unwavering. If the Foreign Office said don’t go, we didn’t — not least because advice against non-essential travel invalidated most travel insurance.
These days we’re less likely to heed its warnings without question. That could be a symptom of the wider collapse of trust in government, or a growing belief that the Foreign Office is out of touch.
Speaking on the Today program about the case of the imprisoned British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the former British ambassador to Egypt John Casson asked: “Why doesn’t the Foreign Office travel advice for the thousands of British tourists who go to Egypt each year explain that we cannot guarantee to you the protection and consular support you would get in any other country?”
The Foreign Office’s advice regarding travel to Egypt has been called into question
PETER ADAMS/GETTY IMAGES
Last month the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, was accused of being tone deaf after advising LGBT football fans going to the World Cup in Qatar show “a little bit of flex and compromise” and “respect the culture of your host nation”.
Confidence had already been shaken during the pandemic as a welter of often irrational advisories put nations off-limits, on-limits, then off-limits again, often for far longer than other countries did.
Clare Williams from Norwich is one of those who has lost confidence in government advice. She said: “The advice they put out during the pandemic seemed random and often unjustified, so when they told us not to go to Sri Lanka last summer we checked advice from other countries, watched the news, contacted people who were out there and decided , on balance, that the Foreign Office was overreacting. We found insurance easily, went in July, and had a brilliant time.”
According to the Foreign Office, which employs 17,300 staff in diplomatic offices worldwide, it bases advice on “local knowledge from our embassies abroad, information provided by the local authorities in each country and, in some cases, information gathered by the intelligence services”.
It does not consult with tour operators or insurers, thereby seemingly ignoring a wealth of detailed, up-to-the-minute, native knowledge. Many in the travel industry are now encouraging the Foreign Office to exploit this asset to help to re-establish its credibility. Paul Simmonds, managing director of Battleface Insurance, said: “They could learn a lot from insurance companies and travel operators about the situation on the ground.”
The Steppes Travel director Jarrod Kyte has staff in about 100 countries and said: “They keep us up to date with what’s happening at both national and local levels. And while I understand the enormity of the Foreign Office’s task, what’s frustrating is that no mechanism exists for the exchange of information between government and industry.”
The cracks were noticeable long before the Covid pandemic. At the inquest into the Sousse massacre in Tunisia in 2015 when 38 tourists were killed, the Foreign Office was criticized for ignoring terrorist attack intelligence. And in Nepal in the same year, delays in the lifting of a travel advisory after the earthquake in May led one Nepalese government official to describe British embassy staff as “arrogant, incompetent and indolent”.
More recently, the pandemic-era red-listing of destinations including Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, Turkey and the entire continent of South America, and the three-month-long advice against non-essential travel to Sri Lanka, after a transition of power, have further undermined confidence in a once-trusted institution.
Holidaymakers traveled to Sri Lanka this summer contrary to Foreign Office advice
PETER ADAMS/GETTY IMAGES
Inconsistencies exist between the advice given to British travelers and that offered to citizens of other nations. In Mexico, for example, the Spanish and French governments tell travelers to avoid 15 states, the Germans, 13, and Australia 18. The UK advises us against non-essential travel to just 10. It’s not clear whether we are being sloppy or they are being overcautious, but it could make a serious difference.
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Advice, though, is all the Foreign Office offers. “Any decision to travel to, stay in or leave a country is for you to take on the basis of the best available information from our travel advice and other sources,” it said. “The government cannot make these decisions for you.”
The number of destinations subject to travel advisories has fallen since the end of the Covid crisis, but 48 out of the 228 nations and territories listed by the Foreign Office are at present subject to warnings against all travel, or all non-essential travel. Its website has had 119 million page views so far in 2022, but some of its advice, say tour operators, is out of date or unwarranted.
The Foreign Office was slow to lift restrictions in Nepal
Jonny Bealby of Wild Frontiers said: “By trying to give an opinion on the entire world, they have made a rod for their own back and inevitably get things wrong. They can be slow to update, far too general, ambiguous, and often overcautious.
“For years they advised against travel to the Kalash region in Pakistan, even though there were no issues there whatsoever. Likewise Kashmir — when I was there in March there were 45 flights a day coming into Srinagar and even though there has not been a terrorist attack on a tourist since 2007, the Foreign Office still advises against travel to the whole region.”
The Foreign Office said: “The safety of British nationals is always our main priority when setting out travel advice and we provide comprehensive guidance for those traveling abroad. Travel advice is kept under constant and rigorous review. Our embassies and high commissions work with governments around the world to ensure that our advice is as up to date as possible.”
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