Smart Traveller warnings and travel insurance: How changes in DFAT advisory can affect you

Planning a visit to Ethiopia to see the incredible body art of the Mursi people, or maybe a cruise along the Nile to take in the wonders of Luxor? You might want to pause and draw breath for a moment. Both Ethiopia and Egypt come with the warning "Reconsider your need to travel" on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's (DFAT) Smartraveller website. This is the second most rigorous warning on DFAT's four-level travel advisory ladder, one rung below "Do not travel". Other countries on the "reconsider" list include Pakistan, Honduras, Bahrain and North Korea.

As of mid-January 2018, DFAT applies a "Do not travel" advisory to 12 countries. As well as the obvious conflict zones of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are a few on the list that make less of a splash in the headlines, including Chad, Burundi and Niger.

Although DFAT might consider them off-limits, finding a tour in some of these countries is not difficult. British-based Wild Frontiers and several other travel operators offer guided tours to Afghanistan, and no problem finding a guided tour to the falls on the Ruvyironza River in Burundi, considered by some to be the source of the Blue Nile. But nobody will take you to for a qat-chewing session in Sanaa, the largest city in Yemen, or to explore the covered bazaar in Syria's Aleppo.

Finding a reputable Australian tour operator prepared to take you to a country to which DFAT applies a "Do not travel" warning is another level of difficulty. According to a spokesman for leading adventure travel operator World Expeditions, they follow DFAT's advice. If a "Do not travel" advisory was applied to a country, World Expeditions would not operate there.

There are plenty of grey areas on Smartraveller. Istanbul has been a top performer on the travellers' urban wish list yet the city crashed from favour following a series of deadly terror attacks. For more than a year DFAT has advised anyone considering a visit to Istanbul to "Reconsider your need to travel". It also adds the ominous footnote "Check that your insurer will cover you".

See also: 10 things travellers probably shouldn't be doing

While the product disclosure statement (PDS) that comes with your travel insurance policy should spell it out, they don't. The American Express Travel Insurance PDS says it will not pay "for loss caused by or arising from … any government regulation, prohibition or restriction". According to a consultant for American Express travel insurance any claim arising from loss or damage suffered in a country to which DFAT had applied a "Do not travel" warning or even the lesser "Reconsider your need to travel" would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The NRMA Travel Insurance PDS says: "You must take all reasonable steps to prevent or minimise a claim." Both these instances leave your insurer with plenty of wriggle room, and it is possible that failure to heed a warning on DFAT's Smartraveller website would have a bearing on any insurance claim you might make.

Within the countries with a "Do not travel" warning is a special category where insurance cover is going to cost a bomb.

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In the case of a two-week visit to Afghanistan, the bill was "probably somewhere in the region of $5000", to cover himself and his equipment, according to Ben McNamara, a videographer who specialises in producing videos for international aid organisations.

Late in 2016, McNamara visited Afghanistan to shoot a documentary focusing on projects aimed at women's empowerment in rural areas at the bequest of an Australian aid organisation. "We had security but you try and stay as low key as possible, unless you're with the Americans who tend to go out heavily armed," says McNamara.

"The main problem is kidnapping. I was wearing local costume so I wouldn't stand out too much but everyone knows who you are and word spreads quickly. The thing is to make yourself a small target, don't look like you're worth kidnapping and keep moving quickly."

McNamara also spent time working in a boys' orphanage in Mindanao, a particularly troubled part of the Philippines. DFAT applies a "Do not travel warning" to central and western Mindanao "due to the very high threat of kidnapping, terrorist attack, violent crime and violent clashes between armed groups".

"I knew that because of the travel advisory I wasn't going to be covered by travel insurance," says McNamara. "It's definitely in the back of your head but you live with it. One of the other guys cut his leg badly and he had to go to hospital but the cost of medical care was so low it really wasn't a problem."

See also: Why do people go wild when they travel?

There are some revealing discrepancies between the travel advisories that DFAT issues and those from Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For example, DFAT applies a "Do not travel" advisory to Chad and also to Burundi while the FCO fine-tunes its advice for both. For parts of both countries, the FCO applies an "Advise against all travel" warning, however for significant areas of both, the FCO applies a less strict "Advise against all but essential travel" warning.

This raises the question of travel insurance. While an Australian travel insurer might decline cover for Chad and Burundi on the grounds of DFAT's advisory, might a British insurer be prepared to offer cover in those areas to which the FCO applied only the less strict warning?

Once again you're in grey territory. If professional reasons require you to visit Burundi, but only areas with a less rigorous FCO warning, would a standard travel insurance policy cover you? British-based Saga insurance says: "Under the terms and conditions of our policy if you travel to a country/region to which the FCO has advised against travelling to you will have no cover under the policy".

According to a spokesman for Britain's World First travel insurance: "Unfortunately with our policies if you were to be travelling against the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, this would invalidate your insurance as we do not offer cover for this." One option would be to upgrade your policy, and World First offers a "High Risk Voyager" policy for travel to high-risk countries and areas where the FCO advises against travel such as war zones, crisis zones and disaster relief zones – but the policy is available only to british and European Economic Area residents.

The takeaway is check the Smartraveller website before you head overseas. Even on its Europe pages there are seven countries to which DFAT applies one of its two highest level cautions. If your destination falls even within the "Reconsider your need to travel" ask your insurer if this is going to impact your cover before you lock in your policy, and preferably get it in writing

See also: Five destinations you shouldn't visit

See also: Three amazing countries tourists won't go to

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