Travel advice is one of the most important public services which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) delivers. Its purpose is to give British nationals the best possible understanding of the context, threats and hazards they face overseas, in order for them to make informed decisions about travel. It draws on a range of sources, including intelligence assessments, open source and media reporting, the local knowledge of our overseas posts and their diplomatic reporting. Travel advice is, however, precisely that. A decision on whether to travel to a specific country or area has to be for the individual concerned.
The FCO provides travel advice notices for 225 countries and territories worldwide. There were more than 40 million individual hits on the online travel advice service in 2015. The FCO in London and all posts throughout our diplomatic network overseas actively monitor safety and security issues on a 24-hour basis and we made 2,200 updates to our travel advice in 2015. Where possible, we publish country maps to help communicate this advice. In some cases we will advise against travel or all but essential travel to a country or region as a result of terrorism, security concerns or other risks. We know that when we advise against travel it can have an impact on individuals and business, but the safety of British nationals is our overriding concern.
The threat from terrorism is evolving. Despite the pressure of military action in Syria and Iraq and concerted and sustained counter-terrorism action globally, the main terrorist groups—Daesh, Al Qaeda and groups associated with them—continue to pose a threat to UK interests globally, including British travellers. Since 2012, there have been more than 25 major terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of at least 300 tourists around the world, including 31 British nationals. In particular, we have seen the growth of so called “lone wolf” attacks, which are difficult to predict and disrupt and could take place in almost any country.
In response to the changing nature of the threat the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), commissioned a review to assess whether changes in how we present travel advice might help us reflect the evolving threat from terrorism, while providing the clearest possible advice to the public. This included a public consultation to help consider potential improvements to the travel advice service. One thousand and nine people responded to the online consultation in March and April 2016. The consultation team met stakeholders, including the travel and insurance industries; encouraged written feedback; and consulted other Government Departments, including the Department for International Development and UK Trade & Investment, as well as several other countries whose travel advice systems are comparable with our own. The aim of the public consultation was to make sure British nationals continued to have information that was readily accessible and easy to understand so they could make informed decisions whenever and wherever they travel. The consultation sought to find out how people used the travel advice service; whether they found it useful; and whether the way information was presented could be improved to make it more accessible. It also looked at whether changes could be made to provide a greater level of detail and better understanding of the level of risk travellers face in any given country.
Taking all of this in to account, I have decided to make a number of improvements to the travel advice service. I want British nationals to be able to travel abroad for business, study or pleasure, but with a clear personal understanding of the risks entailed in doing so.
While the principles of travel advice set out in the 2004 review (Review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice, Cm 6158) in relation to the threat from terrorism remain unchanged, we shall now describe the threat in greater narrative detail, moving away from simple descriptors (e.g. “there is a high threat from terrorism”). This is to provide a greater level of information to the public, helping them to understand better the levels of risk in their travel plans. The new expanded text will describe the threat in terms of its predictability (whether attacks are likely to happen), extent (targets and locations of previous attacks and methodologies employed), context (which groups are responsible, and the history of attacks) and, where appropriate, mitigation (where host nations are actively countering the threat, including through publicly avowed counter terrorism measures and arrests). During the consultation, the public and travel industry said they would welcome this approach. We will also make design improvements to travel advice pages so that users can more easily find the information relevant to them. These changes will be introduced over the coming months, building on work that officials have already begun to increase the amount of detailed information about terrorism in our advice.
I am confident that these changes will ensure our travel advice continues to provide effective information to help British travellers make informed decisions about their personal travel plans and security overseas. Our travel advice will continue to reflect the best judgements we can make on the information available to us at the time.