Travel Warnings Warning: Do your own research.

Looking at the adventures I have had and who they have been with I am torn between solo jungle treks and family resorts as what I have enjoyed the most. That’s really what defines the joy of travel for me; no matter what I do, it’s always better than sitting at home.

When I am sitting at home and find myself looking at travel destinations, part of my research is to check the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website. Travel advice and bulletins have been available on their Smartraveller site since 2000.

The advice you’ll find highlights the range of threats you may encounter at your destination and may include information relating to health, security, local customs and laws and natural events and disasters, such as the recent Bali flight disruptions caused by the ash eruptions of Mt Raung.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop says that the Australian Government frequently consults with foreign governments on a range of issues as part of normal diplomatic relations, including on matters relevant to the safety of Australians.

“DFAT also engages with other stakeholders, including in the travel industry, to understand any changes in the local threat environment,” the Minister said.

Many Australian publications maintain an editorial policy not to encourage travel to destinations where travel warnings are sufficiently serious enough to advise that people do not visit. It’s a completely responsible decision that I don’t disagree with but it got me thinking about countries that have travel warnings issued against them and the actions being taken to improve the safety, security and health of travellers.

As an example, the Smartraveller advisory for the east coast of Sabah is, ‘reconsider your need to travel’. I have travelled to the Malaysian state of Sabah several times as a trekker and as a father. Whether it’s the jungles, mountains, caves, wildlife, shopping or the resorts, there’s much to love about this Malaysian state at the top of Borneo.

Sandakan, on the east coast, has a remarkable connection to Australians, including many Western Australians who died there during World War II. The tragic and infamous Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp and the three death marches to Ranau at the foot of Mount Kinabalu cost the lives of 2428 Prisoners of War (1787 were Australian and 641 were British) and thousands of locals who were made to work for the Japanese and many of whom were caught providing assisting to the prisoners.

The east coast of Sabah is at present experiencing security challenges in meeting the threat of armed insurgents from the nearby Sulu Archipelago chain of islands that make up the southern Phillipines.

Since 2013, the severity of insurgent attacks on the people of Sabah and kidnapping of foreigners has intensified. Two foreign tourists were attacked in their resort off the coast of eastern Sabah and a male tourist was murdered and his wife kidnapped and held captive for several months. In 2014 a foreign tourist and a local employee were kidnapped from a resort and in May this year a gunman with links to insurgents operating in the Sulu islands abducted the manager and a local customer from a restaurant near Sandakan.

It all sounds a bit grim doesn’t it? You’d think it’s not the sort of place to tell my parents that I’m taking their grandchildren to so they can see orangutans in the jungle when they can see them in comfort at the Perth Zoo.

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Orangutans from Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan

Having a look at Smartraveller I source their latest update on worldwide kidnapping threats. 27 countries have a current prevalence of kidnapping and there are broader areas of concern, including North Africa and parts of West Africa. Since June 2014 when the last reported kidnapping involving a foreigner occurred in eastern Sabah there have been 16 kidnappings involving foreign nationals in 8 countries across the world and none of them happened on the east coast of Sabah, or anywhere in Malaysia for that matter.

In March 2013, the Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, launched ESSZONE, the Eastern Sabah Security Zone, and the main enforcement agency ESSCOM, the Eastern Sabah Security Command.

Within ESSZONE, the capabilities of land, sea and air defence and surveillance forces has been upgraded to include new police stations and military forces comprising of five full strength battalions stationed in the area. Naval ships with helicopters and quick response teams are located off the eastern Sabah coast and an oil rig is being utilised as a permanent sea base for ESSCOM forces. The Royal Malaysian Air Force is transferring fighter jets to cover the area and armed attack helicopters will also be attached to ESSCOM.

According to Prime Minister Razak the security levels will remain high as a deterrent to further insurgent activity and increase the confidence of local people and those travelling to Sabah.

The vision and mission for ESSCOM is for its operations to lead to the safety and the wellbeing of the people in eastern Sabah by 2017 and to work with all agencies to increase the ability to gather intelligence and information sharing.

Every travel advisory from the Smartraveller website is reviewed and reissued at least twice a year. The travel advice is a summary of the most likely risks that a traveller may face. According to DFAT it takes into account the overall threat environment, including the capabilities and responses of local authorities.

What’s lacking in travel warnings is a link to the countermeasures being undertaken by a country with a travel warning issued against it. Also, rather than just taking into account the capabilities and responses of local authorities when forming an advisory, it would be useful to disclose what the capabilities, responses and resources of local authorities are.

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Sandakan

It’s a serious situation in eastern Sabah that is reflected by the travel advice of the DFAT travel advisory but unless a traveller is provided with information on the evidence of countermeasures to the situation then it’s only half the story. The Malaysian Government has reacted to the issues by establishing significant police and military forces in the area and is working with the community and other agencies to ensure that security is maintained and information is shared to reduce the risk of insurgent action.

The Smartraveller website provides effective, useful and important information that all travellers should utilise prior to travel and during travel. What the website is not providing is the opportunity to be a one stop shop for travellers to self-assess a situation in another country. While DFAT explain that the internal affairs of other countries, including law and order and public health, are the responsibility of those countries, DFAT is having an impact on the internal affairs of countries by issuing travel advisory information that doesn’t present the full story to travellers undertaking their travel research.

Let me just tell you who recently travelled safely to Sandakan on the 15th of August 2015 for Sandakan Memorial Day; tour groups, including ex-Prisoners of War, school children from across Australia, our Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, the British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell and senior staff from the Australian War Graves Commission in Canberra.

Perhaps it’s still not enough for you to travel to the east coast of Sabah, despite the increased security in place, but at least you have more information to make your own assessment.

 

 

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