Mixed messages

Mixed messages
Mixed messages

The sources from whom travellers and their insurance companies are getting their advice matters, especially when information can vary, resulting in confusion and lack of coverage. ITIJ investigates.

The sources from whom travellers and their insurance companies are getting their advice matters, especially when information can vary, resulting in confusion and lack of coverage. Robin Gauldie investigates.

Travel advisories from government sources like the US State Department, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, have become so central to the planning of insurers, assistance providers, tour operators and travel buyers that it’s easy to forget that they’re a relatively recent development. Less than 30 years ago, holidaymakers and more adventurous travellers sought up-to-date information about potential risks at their planned destination from news media, destination tourist offices or by visiting their country’s embassy or consulate on arrival. Now, governments provide such information and advice online, along with warnings against travel to troubled regions or entire countries.  Terrorist attacks targeting mass tourism destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the US have become a fact of life, and it is the risk of high-profile acts of terror that concentrates the minds of those who provide, and seek out, official travel advisories. The UK’s FCO has been publishing travel advice since 1990. Initially, it was distributed by fax to public libraries and on Ceefax, the world’s first teletext system, and advice was issued only in response to specific events. Keeping up with the times, the system went online in 1997. It has become more proactive, and advice for 225 countries and territories is now available 24 hours a day and is constantly reviewed, the FCO says. Like many governments, it also makes its advice available through an ever-growing online and social media portfolio.

We all refer consumers to the FCO travel advice which they can use to make their travel decisions

In December 2016, the UK’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson announced that the system would be overhauled to increase the amount of detailed information about terrorism included on it, ‘building on work that officials have already begun’. Changes, he said, would be introduced ‘over the coming months’. The FCO says it will remove the terrorism threat level descriptors currently used in travel advice, and instead will describe the threat in terms of ‘predictability, extent, context, and, where possible, details of the host government’s counter terrorism actions’.  

Opinion matters

What happens when the advice issued by governments clashes with the messages put out by destination promoters, the travel trade – or even by other governments? Tracey Poggio, chairman of the Association of National Tourist Office Representatives (ANTOR) in the UK, said the association and its members work closely with the FCO team to provide advice to travellers. “The FCO team relies primarily on its colleagues in the countries concerned but they have advised us that they follow the US and other European travel advice closely. We and our members work closely with ABTA and AITO (the Association of Independent Tour Operators) in times of crisis. Realistically, we all refer consumers to the FCO travel advice, which they can use to make their travel decisions and avoid confusion.” However, Sami Tounsi, trade manager at the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London, points out that while the FCO’s advice against all but essential travel to Tunisia has been in place since May 2015, there are no such advisories from the governments of other important tourism source countries including France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Russia. Around 5.7 million people, 1.5 million of them from European Union (EU) countries, visited Tunisia last year, he says. Belgium, which had advised against all travel to Tunisia, lifted its advisory in March 2017. The US State Department advises only against travel to certain areas – mainly those close to Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria – due to the ‘unpredictable security environment’. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urges its nationals to reconsider their need to travel to Tunisia, and bluntly tells them not to travel to the southern part of the country, the Algerian border area, or Mount Chaambi National Park.  “The difference between advice offered by different governments can be difficult to understand for anyone who is not intimately involved in the decision-making process within those government departments,” says Rob Walker, security expert at International SOS.  “Other countries may have different thresholds to the UK, and enquiries about that are best directed to those countries’ governments. We monitor and take into account other countries’ travel advice, but we make our own decisions based on our judgements,” says FCO press officer (consular and crisis) John Brunskill. Travel advice would be more helpful if governments made it more specific, says Dean van Es, chief executive officer of Australian insurer Fast Cover: “Government advice could be tailored more to traveller type rather than a blanket statement,” he told ITIJ. “Advice is always prepared with the lowest common denominator in mind, so in some ways they are forced to be overly cautious in order to cater for the most vulnerable or elderly travellers. Advice could be more region-specific rather than apply to a whole country. It would be helpful to add an expected duration when a ‘do not travel’ or ‘reconsider your need to travel’ warning is issued so travellers can plan ahead.” As Tunisia’s Sami Tounsi points out, government travel advice does not constitute a ban like the US embargo on travel to Cuba. Defying the FCO’s advice, around 23,000 Britons flew to Tunisia last year, using scheduled flights by Tunis Air from the UK or travelling via EU airports. Almost 4,000 visited Tunisia from the UK in the first three months of this year, a 17-per-cent increase on the first quarter 2016.

The difference between advice offered by different governments can be difficult to understand

While mainstream travel policies will not cover such travellers, specialist insurers will do so – at a price. Direct Travel Insurance, a UK company that specialises in providing travel insurance for people travelling to offbeat and challenging destinations, is among the few to offer specialist policies for those travelling against FCO advice. However, the company reserves the right to decline claims arising from war, civil strife or acts of terrorism where clients have travelled against such advice. When the FCO advises against all but essential travel to a destination, mainstream insurers in Britain are generally minded to withdraw all forms of cover, in effect making it a no-go area for those without a specialist insurance policy. 

US insurers may not treat State Department travel advisories the same way UK insurers treat an FCO advisory

US insurers treat State Department advice differently. “US insurers may not treat State Department travel advisories the same way UK insurers treat an FCO advisory,” says Megan Freedman, executive director of the US Travel Insurance Association. “Certain circumstances or activities are either covered or not covered.” While a government bulletin wouldn’t be a covered reason to cancel a trip before it happens, an insurance company would still provide coverage if the customer ran into trouble while on tour, such as for emergency medical treatment, emergency medical transportation, or trip interruption. Freedman continued: “Consumers are still covered for trips to countries where the government has issued an advisory if they have to cancel their trip for a covered reason (for example illness or injury) or if they run into trouble while travelling and need emergency medical coverage, medical or non-medical evacuation, and coverage for lost or stolen baggage.”

Source upon source

When drawing up their travel advice, government departments can draw on huge resources, including consular representatives, embassies, and intelligence agencies. The FCO says it bases its advice on information from ‘sources including local knowledge from our embassies abroad and in some cases information gathered by the intelligence services’. That presumably includes MI6, properly known as the Secret Intelligence Service. Similarly, the US State Department can draw on the resources of multiple US intelligence agencies. “Insurance companies need to rely on a single definitive source of information to make the best decisions for themselves and their travellers. Overly cautious or not, the government presumably has access to the most up-to-date information available, so it’s understandable that travel insurers use this as a resource when it comes to assessing the level of safety overseas,” says Fast Cover’s Dean van Es.

Insurance companies need to rely on a single definitive source of information to make the best decisions for themselves and their travellers

But in the era of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’, when many seem mistrustful of official government sources of information – and when the president of the US says he mistrusts his own intelligence community – there is evidence that a segment of the public mistrusts official advisories. A look at comments posted by consumers on a thread related to Tunisia on UK-based comparison and booking site Travelsupermarket.com (www.travelsupermarket.com/blog/trouble-in-tunisia-travel-advice) highlights the credibility problems faced by the travel industry, governments and the insurance sector in terms of getting the message across. Some postings concurred with the FCO’s advice. “You all must be mad to go to Tunisia after the obvious warnings,” one contributor wrote. “As a Tunisian, I advise anyone against going to Tunisia,” said another. But others appeared disturbingly willing to trust their own instincts and experience of the destination over official sources. “I’d really like the chance to make up my own mind ... without my nanny mentality government telling me what I can or cannot do,” wrote ‘Stef Johanssen’. ‘Jenny’, posting in August 2016, wrote: “Very safe place. Safer than any place in Europe. Don’t believe the media. I go to Tunisia very often. Nothing to worry about.” That, of course, is what some survivors of the June 2015 attack in Sousse claimed they had been told by their holiday operator. All 30 British tourists killed were clients of Thomson Holidays or its offshoot, First Choice. One survivor, Paul Thompson, told the inquest into the deaths that a Thomson Holidays agent said Tunisia was ‘100-per-cent safe’ when they booked their holiday in May 2015.

It’s down to the individual to make a decision on whether they want to travel by reading the information available to them

Olivia Leathley, another survivor, told The Independent newspaper that she had been aware of civil unrest in Tunisia when she booked her holiday, before the Bardo Museum incident, but ‘never imagined [an attack at Sousse] was a possibility’. She said the [UK] travel industry must do more to ensure holidaymakers have the facts about risks in resorts. “It needs to be a lot more informative. I’m talking big banners on websites.” In a statement, ABTA said it believes FCO advice is still the best information source for British travellers. The travel association says many UK travel companies have made changes to the way they direct customers to FCO advisories to empower their customers to make informed decisions. ABTA acknowledges it needs to do more to ensure clients know where to find travel advice before booking. But it also emphasises that holidaymakers ‘have a responsibility to research their holiday destination’. The FCO’s John Brunskill concurs. “It’s down to the individual to make a decision on whether they want to travel by reading the information available to them,” Brunskill says. “Our travel advice isn’t exhaustive.” The FCO’s travel advice in place before and after the Bardo attack, and before the Sousse killings, said there was ‘a high threat from terrorism’ in Tunisia. “Terrorists continue to threaten attacks in Tunisia and the Ministry of Interior has previously warned of threats to industrial and tourist sites. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners,” said an FCO advisory dated 10 May 2015. “You should be especially vigilant at this time and follow the advice of Tunisian security authorities and your tour operator.” The shootings in Sousse followed less than seven weeks later.

Decisions, decisions

Travellers, then, face a wealth of information sources they can make use of before deciding on whether or not a country is safe to travel to, and while they should perhaps make use of official resources, many will fall back on social media and online travel blogging or booking sites, where advice and information may differ to that on offer from their government. However, as long as some insurers are using government advice to determine coverage, these companies need to be mindful of making their customers aware of this clause in their policy and being very clear about what they will cover if a traveller chooses to ignore a warning.