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Use caution traveling to political hotspots

The United States and Britain have warned travelers to be wary of destinations of political unrest. Kenya, popular for its safaris, is one such vacation destination. The United States and Britain have warned travelers to be wary of destinations of political unrest. Kenya, popular for its safaris, is one such vacation destination. (TOM ODULA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Michelle Higgins
New York Times News Service / January 16, 2008

The violence that erupted in Kenya after a disputed presidential election Dec. 27 raised questions for those planning a trip to one of Africa's most popular safari destinations. Is it safe? Can I postpone? If I cancel can I get my money back? Am I covered under travel insurance?

Travelers have been surfing government sites, reaching out to tour operators, and trolling TripAdvisor.com for answers. Many are getting mixed messages. Members of the London-based Federation of Tour Operators, which includes some of the biggest tour companies in Britain, suspended package tours to Kenya last weekend because of the political unrest and offered customers alternative trips or refunds. Meanwhile, many American tour operators have been insisting that business is operating as usual with safari parks open and airlines flying on schedule.

Regardless of how this all shakes out there are lessons here for American travelers, who are planning travel in increasing numbers to nations in which there is potential for civil unrest.

Shortly after the election, the Kenya Tourist Board reported that the main scheduled international carriers into Nairobi for the North American market, including Kenya Airways, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and Emirates, were operating normally. Domestic carriers, it said, were also on schedule, and tours were operating "normally with little disruption."

Nevertheless, some tour operators immediately took precautions. For instance, Micato Safaris arranged for many of its clients to bypass Nairobi - where riot police used tear gas and water cannons Jan. 3 to turn back crowds who tried to rally - and instead has been flying travelers directly to the game parks by chartered aircraft. It has also posted its own staff members at Nairobi hotels to assist guests scheduled to spend the night there.

The United States and British governments strongly urged travelers to weigh the risks of travel to Kenya. On Jan. 2, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued an advisory against all but essential travel to Kenya. The State Department had already urged Americans in an Oct. 18 travel warning to carefully consider the risks of travel to the country, citing "continuing terrorist threats and increasing incidents of violent crime." A public announcement Dec. 31 followed the election violence. Control Risks, a risk-consulting company, advised clients to defer nonessential travel to Kenya and recommended those already in the country to remain at their destination and avoid overland travel when possible. While foreigners are not being targeted, said Laura Winthrop, a vice president, "there is an incidental risk of being caught up in clashes."

Hundreds have been killed in ethnic clashes, and the violence has hit resort towns like Mombasa on the coast and Nairobi, where tourists arriving on evening flights often stay the night before heading out to game parks. A Jan. 4 statement from the American Embassy in Kenya said that while security was improving, visitors should still expect interrupted flights, a large police presence in the troubled areas and cash shortages at banks and ATMs.

Despite the volatile situation, airlines and tour operators report few cancellations by tourists. But the impression that Kenya is one of the more stable African nations is fading fast. Scenes of migrating wildebeests and elephants in the Masai Mara have been replaced with news photographs of rioting in Nairobi, churches burned to the ground and citizens fleeing the country.

After seeing such images, Andrea Macari, a clinical psychologist from Great Neck, N.Y., rerouted her $30,000 two-week trip to Africa to avoid traveling in Kenya. Originally, Macari and her husband, Dylan Mitchell, were scheduled to use Nairobi as a jumping-off place to Rwanda for gorilla tracking before heading back to Kenya for a safari. Now the couple is bypassing Kenya completely by flying into Uganda, connecting to Rwanda and taking charter flights to get around. They have replaced their Kenyan safari with a stay at a tented camp in the Serengeti in Tanzania.

"I'm not going on a vacation to be anxious all the time for my safety," said Macari, who departed for her trip without knowing if she would get a refund for the canceled Kenya safari.

Lisa Gramlich, a pediatric anesthesiologist from Chicago, who left for Kenya with three friends Jan. 7, also took precautions. Two of the travelers who planned to take a public bus to Kilimanjaro will now fly there. And instead of shopping and sightseeing in Nairobi, Gramlich plans to stay on the grounds of her resort while she is in the capital. In a situation like this, she said, "the likelihood of becoming a victim of robbery or something becomes just a little more heightened."

Most travel insurance policies will not cover the cancellation of a Kenyan safari, which can easily cost $400 a day a person, not including airfare, because civil unrest is considered an exclusion. But airlines, hotels, and tour operators have been doing their best to accommodate travelers.

Virgin Atlantic, which flies from the United States to Nairobi via London, has waived all change fees and is allowing customers to change their travel dates without penalty for up to a year. At press time, Kenya Airways was offering travelers a full refund for flights canceled 24 hours before departure.

Continuing unrest could be a considerable blow to Kenya's tourism industry, which is expected to bring in $900 million and more than a million visitors this year.

"We're very, very concerned because the images paint a very ugly picture," said Jake Grieves-Cook, managing director of the Nairobi-based GameWatchers Safaris and former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board. "If there is a resolution without delay, we will be able to recover very quickly. If it drags on, it could have a very, very serious impact on the economy and the Kenyan people who depend on tourism for their livelihood."

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