Are British Holidaymakers the New Foot Soldiers in Foreign Policy?

We are continuing to receive a very high number of calls from concerned holidaymakers about to travel to Egypt or Tunisia; I can assure everyone that we are working as quickly as possible to get to you and to hopefully guide you on these holiday complaints!  Visitors to our website will have noted our press release's offering guidance to UK holidaymakers, about their pre-departure travel rights to Tunisia or Egypt. On the question of Egypt we are faced with two camps; the Foreign Office and the Travel Industry believe that it is safe to travel to the Red Sea Resorts - British Holidaymakers do not!  There is a battle taking place via email, through tour operator call centres and at airports between both camps! 

Turning to Tunisia, we can see from this article the 'reasons' why this crisis occurred, however, if we read the Wikileaks/Guardian published US Embassy cables, it is clear that concerns about the stability of Tunisia have been long held!  The ordered evacuation of UK holidaymakers was congratulated by us in our press release (above), but, as we suspected, returned holidaymakers expressed their anger at being sent to Tunisia in the first place, particularly when some of them discovered that as early as 18 December 2010, one major tour operator had placed notices in its hotels, warning holidaymakers not to venture outside due to the problems that were clearly developing by that date.  Returned holidaymakers reported to us a catalogue of 'threats' made against them in shops and on the streets, which clearly added to their distress and puzzlement as to why their holidays had been allowed to commence!  On review of these complaints, is it simply the case that the FCO and the Travel Industry were lucky in getting UK holidaymakers out of Tunisia when they did?

In all risk destination travel crises, we have consistently stated our support for the local population and have held the strong belief that that they should have the freedom to resolve their issues, without having the additional burden of holidaymakers.  We have also offered support to the model of sustainable tourism; it is not just about renewable resources, but about how to encourage holidaymakers to visit a given destination not just once, but through return visits or their recommendations to visit that country.

Consider my comments at the height of the Kenyan Crisis in 2006:

"We have no desire to affect to economy of any country. However, it is foolhardy of any politician, in any country, to expect any citizen to take a holiday, where there are difficult fundamental problems, or which supports actions which are internationally reviled, knowing that they may be exposed to risk. By any measure, there can be no bedrock of stability, either for the holidaymaker or the domestic hosts of such a country based on the illusion of normalcy. I fully support the views of Cath Urqhart (Times Online), who in April 2006 stated, "When I go on holiday I want to relax, not to be a foot soldier in the War on Terror".  It is abundantly clear, by any method of research, that all has not been well in Kenya for sometime, why then must British Holidaymakers be put at risk, surely the idea of sustainable tourism is to encourage the same holidaymakers to return to their destination? What chance has Kenya got now? What chance has any ‘risk’ destination got for a sustainable future where the holidaymaker is not given the facts?"

Those earlier comments are clearly applicable to the current Tunisian & Egyptian crises!

Notwithstanding, we must give credit for the current progress offered by the interim Tunisian government; their subscription to International Human Rights accords is clearly a step in the right direction.  That said, there will now be a thirst and hunger from ordinary Tunisians to see rapid effects of those changes translated into their daily lives!  I note that the UK Minister of State (Alistair Burt) was quick to welcome Tunisia's entry into a wider International arena.

Today (5/2/2011), the UK Foreign Office has now lifted its travel advisories of warning against all but essential travel to Tunisia, however, it is the comments made by the said Minister which prove both interesting and give rise to possible concerns!

The BBC refers to the 'reduced threat'  (not exactly comforting to note that it is 'reduced' rather than non-existent!) and the Foreign Office warns of curfews and possible protests.  The FCO states that:

"Anyone travelling to Tunisia should keep themselves well informed and closely monitor political and security developments.  British Nationals in Tunisia should take responsibility for their own security, monitor the situation closely, stay away from demonstrations and large gathering of people, public buildings (such as Government Offices, the Presidential Palace), exercise caution, and observe instructions given by local authorities and tour operators". 

They also advise that if you intend to travel to Tunisia, that you should register with the FCO's locate service!

However, consider now the comments of the Minister of State, Alistair Burt!  Importantly, he apparently stated to the BBC that the rationale in the changes in travel advice to Tunisia was that there was a:

  • 'reduced' threat to British Citizens;
  • a change of tactics by the new Tunisian government, and
  • the fact that tourism was 'vital' to the Tunisian economy and its future development!

When you analyse the approach of the UK Government and the Travel Industry to both the Tunisian & Egyptian crises, it is abundantly clear that UK holidaymakers are an important tool in extending influence in troubled nations, in other words, British Holidaymakers now form a very important commercial weapon in the creation and development of Foreign Policy!

Apart from the difficulties on Travel Insurance which I shall deal with in the next article, to my mind, the following questions are pertinent:

  1. At the time of booking a holiday (before payment is taken), do holidaymakers clearly appreciate that they are going to travel to an area that contains such risk(s)?
  2. What warnings or information is provided or offered to demonstrate these risks (before payment is taken); surely if as the UK Foreign Office states, that holidaymakers are 'responsible' for their 'own security', shouldn't they be given the facts at the time of booking the holiday (before payment - in hard copy) - presumably through a joint UK Foreign Office/Tour Operator statement for that particular 'risk' destination? 
  3. Is it sufficient for the Tour Operator to simply point to the UK Foreign Office and for the Foreign Office to point to generic guidance and back to the Tour Operator on particular 'risk' destinations?
  4. Where a 'risk' destination situation arises, is there not a greater duty of care visited upon the UK Foreign Office/Tour Operators; they have a greater knowledge and understanding of a destination, which could clearly impact on the economic and personal decisions that a Consumer will make? 
  5. Shouldn't the partnership that clearly exists between the UK Foreign Office/Travel Industry be providing a joint statement on repatriation in the event that difficulties arise, at the time of booking a holiday?
  6. In light of that 'partnership', should they now create a protocol on the thorny issue of Travel Insurance, perhaps in further partnership with the Insurance Industry itself?
  7. Has the time now come to fully disclose how these Industry/Government partnerships work; surely this would offer information and comfort to the Consumer, indeed, wouldn't these partnerships benefit from the input from Consumers themselves?

Perhaps it is the case the British Holidaymakers have indeed become unwitting foot soldiers in Foreign Policy, however, surely it should be the fundamental right of ordinary UK Consumers, to be given the facts and to choose if they want to exercise this role?

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