by Hugh Morris, The Daily Telegraph, January 18, 2017
The Foreign Office (FCO) has warned British travellers to stay away from the Gambia, after the country was plunged into turmoil when the outgoing president declared a state of emergency.
Tour operator Thomas Cook is pulling out nearly 1,000 British tourists from the country, with a programme of additional contingency flights from the capital, Banjul.
Where is the Gambia?
A six-and-a-half-hour flight from the UK, the "Smiling Coast of Africa" is popular go-to holiday choice for Britons hoping to escape the winter gloom.
“With a warm climate, welcoming people and diverse landscapes, from long stretches of white sand beach to mangrove swamps and nature reserves, this friendly country attracts visitors seeking guaranteed winter sunshine,” explains Thomas Cook’s promotional literature on the West African nation – the tour operator’s only offering on the continent.
Who goes there?
The Gambia, Africa’s smallest nation, and neighbouring Senegal are often described as "Africa lite". While the country offers a taste of the continent, with the chance to spot scampering monkeys and exotic bird life, or take boat rides along meandering creeks to traditional villages, it also has a burgeoning fly and flop tourism industry.
A small but loyal following head there regularly for winter sun, lured by guaranteed heat and affordable luxury. Around 50,000 Britons visit each year. See here for a recent Telegraph Travel article detailing 13 reasons why Gambia should be on your holiday radar.
Why has the Foreign Office advised against travel?
On Tuesday the Foreign Office issued a change to its travel advice for the Gambia, in the wake of president Yahya Jammeh's apparent refusal to relinquish power to president-elect Adama Barrow, a former security guard at an Argos in north London.
“The incumbent President, Yahya Jammeh, continues to contest the election results at the Supreme Court, while the President elect, Mr. Adama Barrow, has left the country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has stated it may intervene, including possible military action, if President Jammeh doesn’t step down on the scheduled handover date of January 18/19, 2017.“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all but essential travel to the Gambia due to ongoing political uncertainty and potential military intervention following the presidential elections on December 1, 2016,” the FCO said.
"This has led to intransigence on the part of the sitting government, resulting in reports that it has started to take restrictive measures, including shutting down opposition radio stations and making politically motivated arrests. The potential for military intervention and civil disturbance is high and could result in Banjul International Airport being closed at short notice.”
I am in the Gambia now - what should I do?
The FCO advises Britons in the Gambia to leave by commercial means “if you have no essential need to remain”. Thomas Cook has announced it is flying 985 package holiday customers back to Britain. A spokesman said it has an extra 2,500 "flight-only" customers in Gambia who it is contacting to offer the earliest flight back to the UK.
Abta, the travel association, estimates that there are around 2,000 Britons on holiday in the Gambia with its members, adding there will likely be more who have travelled independently.
“Package holidaymakers in the Gambia are advised to contact their tour operator to confirm arrangements for returning home,” a spokesperson said. “Those who have travelled independently will need to contact their airline to discuss their options. Tour operators will not send out any further package holidaymakers to the Gambia while the FCO advice remains in place.”
The FCO says anyone in the country should monitor events closely.
“You should follow events closely, take extra care, keep in regular contact with your tour operator and airline and continue to monitor travel advice and social media updates in case tensions rise as the current political deadlock continues,” it said. “Avoid large crowds and avoid discussing politically sensitive topics in public.”
Have there been any other security issues?
The FCO says there is an underlying threat from terrorism in Gambia. There have been a number of attacks in neighbouring countries in recent years, including the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, especially in areas frequented by foreign tourists.
I’m due to travel on a package holiday - has it been cancelled?
Abta says that anyone due to travel imminently is advised to contact their tour operator to discuss options of changing their date of travel, receiving a full refund or booking an alternative holiday.
Will I get a refund?
The Gambia Experience, a specialist tour operator, issued a statement advising its customers to remain in their hotel. It said: “Whilst the current situation in The Gambia remains calm we will be working with the FCO and airline partners to offer pre-emptive repatriation flights back to the UK.”
Yes. Your tour operator is legally obliged to offer you a full refund or an alternative holiday if the Foreign Office advises against visiting a destination. However, their policies will vary. Legally, they are only obliged to offer the refund if you are due to the depart within 48 hours, although some may have already cancelled future trips. Thomas Cook has cancelled flights until January 20, while the Gambia Experience has cancelled trips up to January 31. Contact them to discuss your options.
What about an alternative holiday?
Your tour operator will almost certainly want to offer an alternative destination rather than cancel outright. Thomas Cook has asked anyone affected to contact them.
Though January is a busy winter sun holiday period, there should be availability in destinations such as the Canary Islands. The Thomas Cook website is still showing holidays to the Gambia later in the month but this is liable to change should the unrest continue.
I'm due to travel later in the year - should I cancel?
If your tour operator has not yet cancelled your trip you will be liable to pay a fee if you choose to cancel.
Abta says that “the political situation remains fluid” and that travel companies will continue to monitor the situation and allow cancellations and rebooking for travel dates while the advice against all but essential travel remains in place.
“Tour operators will not send out any further package holidaymakers to the Gambia while the FCO advice remains in place,” it says.
I've arrange my holiday independently – what are my options and can I get a refund?
If your flight hasn’t been cancelled, you can still travel. But take the Foreign Office advice very seriously.
Abta warns that anyone travelling against FCO advice will invalidate their UK travel insurance policies. It said: “Insurance policies will still provide cover for travellers already in a country at the time of a Foreign Office advice change.”
It added that independent travellers should talk to their airlines and accommodation providers, “although there is no obligation on either to offer the same options as a tour operator”.
If your flights is cancelled your airline is obliged to offer you a refund. However, if you have booked a hotel, a villa or other accommodation independently, your contract is directly with the hotel or villa and you are responsible for any cancellation. If you can’t get there, you will have to do your best to persuade them to give you a refund or rebook for a later date – but they are not obliged to do this and you may lose money.
Likewise, if you have already paid for a hire car or excursion independently, you are still responsible for paying the bill.
Am I covered by my travel insurance?
A few policies have cover for a “consequential loss”, such as a hotel booking made independently. You will need to check the terms and conditions which apply to your policy directly with your insurer.
This article was written by Hugh Morris from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.