Wednesday, March 4, 2009

British Foreign Office Travel Advice

When we booked our ill-fated cruise on the Costa Europa it included a stop in the Comoros at Mayotte as well as three ports in Madagascar.

By the time our cruise documentation arrived Mayotte had mysteriously vanished, with no explanation. Some days into the cruise two of the Madagascar stops were cancelled as well, with stories that these changes were due to the 'socio-political situation'. All very laudably safety-conscious, you might think.

And yet what does the British Foreign Office have to say about Kenya? I quote:

'We advise against all but essential travel to within 30 kilometres of the border with Somalia. There have been recent attacks by Somali militia into Kenya and the recent kidnapping of two Western nuns. There is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. While there have not been any terrorist attacks in Kenya since 2002, we know that Al-Qaeda has the potential to carry out attacks against Western targets. Muggings and armed attacks by gangs can occur at any time, particularly in Nairobi and Mombasa. Avoid walking around after dark as attacks can occur anywhere, but especially in isolated areas such as empty beaches. There have been a number of armed attacks on golf courses around Nairobi, be extra vigilant while playing in remote areas away from the Club House of any golf courses. Be alert at all times. Do not accept food or drink from strangers as it may be drugged. Only stay in tourist camps with good perimeter security. Do not carry valuables or wear jewellery in public places. Do not carry credit cards or cash cards unless you must: people have been forced by thieves to withdraw cash. Beware of thieves posing as police officers; always ask to see identification. In 2008, two British nationals resident in Kenya were killed during robberies at their homes. The most recent incident occurred in April 2008. In October 2008, two British and one Irish tourist were attacked and robbed by a six man gang near Nyeri (central Kenya) whilst on a guided tour.'

Given this authoritative advice I'm staggered that Costa were so determined to get to Mombasa AND to let us go ashore on potentially hazardous excursions. But then again this might have something to do with the tired old Europa's crippled starboard engine and the need to get emergency repairs carried out in a big port.

By comparison, the Comoros advice is:
'As a result of its colonial history and the ongoing political debate regarding the separation status of Mayotte, there have been a number of reports of demonstrations and anti-French sentiment throughout Comoros. All foreigners should remain cautious and monitor events through the local media, and avoid all demonstrations, rallies and other large public gatherings.'

Sounds like far less of a problem than Mombasa!

The Madagascar advice is:

'We advise against all but essential travel to Madagascar. There have been a number of demonstrations in Madagascar since 24 January 2009 as a result of tensions between the government of President Ravalomanana and opposition leader and former mayor of Antananarivo, Rajoelina. There have been violent incidents and lootings in Antananarivo and regional centres across the country, and more than 125 deaths have been reported. On Thursday 19 February 2009, the opposition took over four ministries which were subsequently retaken by security forces. We strongly advise British nationals in Madagascar to avoid any political rallies, demonstrations or large gatherings and to monitor the situation in the local media. A curfew is currently in effect between 22:00 and 04:00. We advise all British nationals in Madagascar to abide by this curfew.'

Under these circumstances you'd have expected that ALL Madagascar calls would have been abandoned long before our cruise, that extra, compensatory ports of call would have been arranged and that we'd have had more than an hour in RĂ©union. To be as charitable as possible, it sounds as if Costa dithered in indecision, which again comes back to the quality of decision-making at the top of the company.

So, in summary,

a) if the abandoned ports of call were so predictably hazardous
b) if the ailing Europa's engines were so much in need of maintenance (or replacement)

why wasn't the whole cruise cancelled, thus sparing Costa's paying customers needless expense?

I'm still amazed that we limped up and down the Indian Ocean at snail's pace, wallowing in light seas, missing ports of call and periodically belching smoke that showed the dreadful state of Europa's engine maintenance, and yet Costa blithely allowed the next lot of suckers, sorry, customers, to board in Mauritius and then set off yet again, doubtless crossing their corporate fingers and smiling innocently.

Against this background of corporate muddle it looks like a bit of a gamble to cruise on ANY Costa ship. I'm pleased to say that I met a friend last night who'd been considering Costa's Dubai cruise and that my explanation of events on the Europa has led him to abandon the idea.

Caveat emptor.

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