‘The elephant in the room’ is an apt saying for the safari industry, well described as ‘ignoring an obvious problem by failing to address an issue that stands out in a major way’. The news from Kenya is horrifying – yet another terrorist attack designed to destabilise the status quo. The elephant is the travel advice that precedes and follows such incidents. An increased ‘non-essential’ travel warning for the Kenya coast last month raised howls of protest from our members, asking why are we ignoring an obvious problem by failing to address travel advisories, an issue that stands out in a major way?

The northern coast of Kenya is now in the ‘non-essential’ zone, which is a disaster for any remaining hopes of a tourist revival. Coastal tourism is in melt down and beach and safari packages are out of the window. If you are not in Kenya, you might reflect that their downfall is your gain. However, I would caution that approach as, in this climate, terrorism knows no boundaries and terrorist attacks carried out by small groups are unfortunately becoming a feature of global tourism, with serious incidents recently in Toronto, Sydney, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen and Tunis. Today’s star destinations could fall just as quickly and become a rolling negative headline on Sky and CNN.

There is inconsistency in travel advisories. Many governments leave their nationals to pick and choose which country they visit, without travel advice or warning. German and Italian charter companies continue to ignore all advisories and are happily sharing the sun and golden sands of Kenya’s almost empty beaches, whereas, in contrast, the advisories from the UK, USA and Australia are severe. Perhaps the UK does not share its intelligence information with our NATO allies.  Of all the incidents listed above from Toronto to Tunis, not one of those locations has a ‘non-essential’ warning imposed, so UK operators can continue to sell these destinations and visitors can travel to them all.

The UK market remains the largest source market in sub-Saharan Africa, partly due to its colonial past. The tourism industry in UK and Africa is questioning these advisories, which can lead to a collapse in tourism. The UK government believes that they should be responsible for the safety of the British nationals travelling abroad, hence the FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) travel advisory. But they appear to have drifted far from the original guidelines on travel advisories, which were set up at the time of  the extensive policy review in 2004 which looked at a number of approaches that the government could take for travel advice, including ‘no travel advice at all’, or an ‘information only’ approach. The latter might have been a better solution, but the UK government concluded that an advisory element was justified, on the condition that the bar was set very high for advice against travel, in the case of terrorism.

The Foreign Secretary at that time, reported to Parliament that the Foreign Office would not issue bans on travel unless a location was considered so dangerous that they had no choice. There was to be a policy change to avoid issuing non-essential travel warnings except where there was ‘extreme and imminent danger of a very large scale’ and a ‘non-essential’ was not effective if retained for more than a few months.

So where are we 10 years on? Following the spate of travel advisories for Kenya but way before Garissa, I tabled a question on Kenya’s ‘non-essential’ coastal travel advisory to the Africa Minister and received a written reply that clearly stated, “People take our travel advice seriously, although we don’t enforce it. Individuals are free to make their own decisions about foreign travel regardless of what our travel advice says”. This is exactly the point of contention, the misunderstanding by FCO of the consequence of their action. Their official response shows that they do not appear to grasp that, in reality, once a ‘non-essential’ is issued, it is no longer an advice, but is a complete ban on travel to the area in question and does not give tourists from UK the choice to make up their own minds after being given all the information. Most British tour operators are members of associations such as ABTA, Federation of Tour Operators, AITO and Atta, and all have a duty of care under current EU legislation, which effectively prohibits them from operating in areas subject to their government’s ‘non-essential travel’ warning. The insurance industry has taken the same line so that a traveller’s insurance might not be valid if they ignore the warning. This explains why a ‘non-essential’ ban shuts down tourism from UK and throws thousands of Africans out of work, destabilising the status quo, exactly the result the terrorists strive to obtain.

Many in our industry contend that a travel ban creates resentment and radicalisation. They argue that the huge loss of jobs in tourism weakens the stability of society so that young men from families who can no longer hope to earn a living through tourism become gullible and vulnerable to advances from radical movements, under the pretext of alleviating their unsustainable lives. Could this indeed be the exact consequence of a prolonged ‘non-essential’ travel advice anywhere in Africa?

Our industry accepts that any travel advice cautioning citizens and making them aware of risks and terrorist threats is acceptable; the recent incidents in parts of East Africa prove that. But a ‘non-essential’ is a very grave step if left in place for months on end. It has huge implications on employment by closing down tourism and, in Kenya’s case, for example, creates anti-British resentment and increasing radicalisation of Muslim youth at the coast. Is there not an argument to let the traveller decide where he wants to go, quite free to make their own decisions? By all means, present the options and cautions, but surely imposing what is in effect a blanket ban by issuing a ‘non-essential’ does more harm than good. This elephant in the room is the very problem that the industry is failing to address right now and how should we best go about that?