‘Credit where credit’s due’ is not a phrase often heard when discussing the government. It’s easy to knock it for so many things but we think it’s time to say three cheers for a government service that’s not often praised, but deserves to be.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s foreign travel advice service quietly goes about its business without much fanfare, but of the fifty five million UK nationals that travel each year, many of them will be travelling more safety as a result of the advice provided by the FCO.
Clearly, it’s in the government’s interest to keep UK nationals out of trouble whilst travelling abroad as it means less work for our embassies and it keeps the costs down, (dealing with pesky hostage takers is pretty time consuming as well) but it is a noteworthy service nonetheless that deserves more credit.
Each month the FCO reviews its advice and updates it so as to reflect any changes that it thinks may significantly affect travelling Britons. In fast changing situations, it may update this advice several times a day. Its sources of information include our embassies around the world and occasionally even ‘intel’ provided by the intelligence services.
The FCO has to tread a fine line between sounding too alarmist and playing situations down. If its advice is too shrill, it runs the risk of upsetting the country where the Britons are travelling and on whom their tourism industry relies. But equally the FCO is quite clear that its first duty is to protecting the safety of British Nationals and if it advises, ‘don’t travel’, it means, ‘don’t travel’.
On the whole, we think the FCO gets this balance about right but then it has been doing it for quite a while. And the secret is in its name (Foreign and Commonwealth).
The FCO believes that the purpose of its travel advice is to ‘provide objective information and advice to help you make better-informed decisions about foreign travel’. So the onus is always on the individual. And as a result, determining what constitutes ‘essential travel’ varies dramatically from one person to another.
The FCO is also well aware that its advice can have a knock-on effect on such things as trade or even political considerations. For a country such as Turkey, which is hugely reliant on its tourism industry, the FCO’s advice following the Istanbul bombings could have had a catastrophic effect. So the advice it issued at the time, ‘’generally safe to travel but you should take additional safety precautions’, meant a huge sigh of relief all round amongst Marmaris hoteliers.
Their counterparts in the Egyptian resort at Sharm el Sheihk have not been so lucky and the FCO’s advice there, ‘advising against all but essential travel by air’ was enough to see several airlines pull out from this previously hugely popular resort.
For the vast majority of the travel trade, including the aviation industry and the travel insurance industry, its advice, as well as being free is both highly valuable and closely followed.
We think the FCO’s travel advice service deserves to be put on the shelf marked ‘national treasures’ alongside BBC Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast and the National Trust.