Travel Comment

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Keep an eye online for safer travelling

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Hey, be careful out there - it's a tough old world. And if you have any doubts about that, take a look at the "safe travel" website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In its wisdom (helped by the wisdom of nations like Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States), the ministry declares that 32 countries (or specific regions within countries) today pose "extreme risk" to travellers.

In other words, these are destinations where our Government warns us: don't go there and, if you are there already, get out quickly.

If that wasn't scary enough, as of last week you could throw in a further 28 countries (or, more likely, regions within those countries) which are rated "high risk" - where the people we pay to keep us safe tell us "non-essential travel should be deferred".

So much for an inviting world. When around 30 per cent (at last count) of the world's 195 countries are waving an "enter if you dare" flag, it's no wonder many stick to the Gold Coast and Norfolk Island.

If you threw in the "some risk" category (a heightened but generalised threat of terrorism, for example) you could wipe another heap of countries off the safe list.

But do those warnings matter, or are we being molly-coddled by an over-protective state?

If you took the latter view you'd certainly buy an argument with Rosemary Paterson, director of the consular division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Paterson heads the team which is in hourly touch with news on the world's hotspots, constantly updating the ministry's website (safetravel.govt.nz) to keep New Zealand travellers alert to the risks they face beyond our shores. The site's been up and running since June 2006.

Warnings on the risk of earthquakes or acts of terrorism sit alongside those pinpointing the danger of pick-pockets and dengue fever. But this isn't a team that waits patiently for any sign of strife and then leaps in excitedly with a "travel at your peril" warning.

My mind goes back to September 2006 and waking to the radio news of a coup in Thailand with tanks roaring through the streets of Bangkok. We were due to leave the next day for Europe, with a week's stopover in Bangkok, and it was the last thing I wanted to hear.

Coups and Thailand go together like rice and green curry, but it was still a worry: would we be stuck in our hotel the whole week, would the streets be safe, could the airport be shut down? And if it did turn to custard would our travel insurance come to the rescue?

The website was restrained and sensible: offering a "some risk" assessment (fair enough) and a general warning to be vigilant. So off we went ... to land in a country which was typically safe and friendly - to have our pictures taken with the coup soldiers standing by their tanks, beaming at tourists.

The real key here was our insurance - which, standard with travel policies sold in New Zealand, excluded coverage in countries (or regions of countries) declared by the ministry to pose "extreme risk".

If the ministry had elevated Thailand's (or Bangkok's) status to "extreme", we would have been in a pickle - with the option of ploughing on regardless (potentially running the risk of big extra costs) or being forced to change or cancel bookings and battling an insurance firm for compensation.

The insurers use www.safetravel.govt.nz as their bible and for that reason alone New Zealanders should check before they make their bookings - and keep an eye on the site until their departure.

The built-in exclusion for countries or regions deemed to pose "extreme risk" allows insurance companies to decline any claim emanating from such areas, though they will tend to be reasonable if, for example, you lose your baggage in such a country because of terrorist attacks.

But if you're injured in such an attack or forced to change your plans because of an act of terrorism - and should reasonably have known of the risk before you entered the danger zone - you can hardly expect the insurance company to lean over backwards.

For warnings which identify some risk or high risk, your policy will probably give full cover. But, as Keri Collins of IAG points out, travel policies require people to take reasonable care of possessions. So if you were in a destination known for pick-pocketing and did not take precautions to keep your belongings safe, you might have problems.

Be on the safe side if you're about to travel: always keep an eye on the ministry website and register your details online before you leave the country.

Then, if the unexpected happens, you're just a phone call away.

RISKY TERRITORIES

These countries (or, more usually, regions within countries; the warning on Indonesia, for example, only related to Maluku province and Central Sulawesi province) were listed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade last week as posing "extreme risk" to travellers:

Albania, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

For full details, check out safetravel.govt.nz.

- Bruce Morris

Pictured above: The Thai "coup" was so friendly that tourists lined up to take pictures of soldiers. Photo / AP

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