What’s in a warning?

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How should you respond when travel advisories are issued? And is your reaction valid?

GrahamBoyntonThe murky world of terrorist attacks, travel advisories and tourist stay-aways just got murkier following the bombings in Kenya this past May. The US Embassy issued a travel alert, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against all but essential travel, Thomson and First Choice cancelled all flights to the end of October, and Kuoni offered free cancelations.

So, once again the Kenyan tourism industry, which was already 20 per cent down after bombings last year, has taken a calamitous fall. How calamitous? Several Masai Mara lodge owners I spoke to recently are talking about selling off assets to help ride out what will inevitably be a terrible 2014. And, they say, many well-publicised community conservation projects are now in jeopardy as tourist revenues dry up.

Naturally everyone is blaming the other guy. So, the State Department and the FCO are accused of hair-trigger responses to localised acts of terror, the big tour companies are accused of using the advisories as an excuse to pull out of underperforming destinations, the government is accused of doing nothing to reassure the outside world that the majority of tourist venues and the tourists are safe, and, as always, journalists are accused of stirring matters up with sensationalist reporting.

Everyone who has ever taken a safari in East Africa knows you are safer in the Mara, Laikipia or the Aberdares than you probably are in Hampstead. Equally, if the foreign office advisory applies to Mombasa, travellers’ insurance policies will still cover them in the remote wilderness areas mentioned above, if not for Mombasa itself.

The good, committed UK-based Africa operators are, as I write this, reassuring their agitated clients that not only will they be safe on their upcoming Kenyan safaris but that they won’t require armed escorts for their transfers between Jomo Kenyatta International airport and Wilson Airport. The trusted operators in question have now succeeded and their clients will be travelling.

However, there remains a perception out there that Kenya, and many other parts of Africa, are inherently dangerous for Western travellers. Those of us who know the terrain intimately – and over the past two years I’ve travelled through Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa without a moment’s concern – are clear about the safety of most of Africa. But even my own family, who watch me travel to Africa at least four times a year, express misgivings and always utter the farewell “safe travels” with some trepidation. Even I can’t persuade them.

So, the conclusion? Africa has a colossal, deep-rooted, image problem that requires attention at the highest level. It is time the individual governments became pro-active and committed state funds to long-term PR campaigns to dispel the broad perception of a dangerous and unstable continent. The private sector can no longer shoulder this burden alone.

And, of course, they have to step up their security. But that’s another story.

July 2014

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