The Kenyan kidnap resort was a paradise on the edge of hell

What were they doing there? Apart from the questionable decision to spend up to £500 a night to stay in a straw hut strewn with a bit of rustic decor, why there? Why go on holiday so near to the Somali border? The terrible events in Kiwayu, Kenya, that led to the killing of David Tebbutt and the kidnapping of his wife, Judith, were sadly foreseeable. That tourists continued to travel to such a dangerous spot in blissful ignorance is something about which the resort, the travel industry, the Foreign Office and also newspapers have questions to answer.

The odd thing about the events in Kiwayu is that there have been so many warnings about the place and yet tourists seem oblivious to them, as a quick read of the reviews on Trip­Advisor - bliss, perfect, paradise - shows. This is an area just nine miles beyond the travel zone around the Somali border, which the Foreign Office explicitly warns is off-limits. A broken state, a civil war, Islamic militancy and a sea full of pirates - even for the adventurous, this should be a no-go area.

It is a location so dangerous that the third item on the Kiwayu Safari Village website - after "About Us" and "Location" - was "Security and Safety 24 Hours a Day". Might that have alerted a potential guest? "We have a number of systems and measures in place which are designed to give you maximum security and safety without detracting from the special ambiance of this site or the area. We have our own organic security protocols as well as a professional security structure . . ." What does an "organic security protocol" look like? It's absolute gobbledegook.

Alarm bells

You don't have to dig much online to discover why a "security protocol" might be needed at Kiwayu. Four years ago, the US embassy in Nairobi issued a warning: "There are indications that Islamic extremists based in Somalia may be planning to target westerners, especially American citizens, in the Kiwayu Island tourist area and other beach sites frequented by western travellers on the north-east coast near Somalia," said a statement reported by AFP in Nairobi and Sky News in the UK.

I would have thought that specific threat might have been mentioned in the Foreign Office travel advice about Kenya - not because the FO should report each and every threat, but because this area was already dangerous and subject to raids by Somali bandits. The New York Times reported on 12 September that Somali gunmen attacked Kiwayu Safari Village and robbed guests there several years ago.

It's a hard thing to calibrate, the detail of official warnings. Wafula Okumu, an expert in security in eastern Africa, has pointed out that after 9/11 the world was urged to visit New York to show solidarity with the US. Yet when there are terror threats in poor countries, western citizens are advised not to travel there, doing great damage to local economies and inflaming anti-western sentiment.

Following information about a threat to a British aircraft in 2003, Britain placed a "non-essential travel ban" on Kenya, and BA suspended flights for a month. Kenya's ministry of foreign affairs later estimated that ban cost the country £108m, equivalent to 1.6 per cent of the national wealth. The horticultural industry and Kenya Wildlife Service were badly affected, as was the tourism sector. No wonder the Kenyan authorities scrambled to reassure tourists that most of the country is still safe and that Kiwayu is a uniquely isolated spot.

Yet it is one so obviously unsafe, and has been for such a long time. The artist and writer Liza Campbell lived on Kiwayu Island two decades ago. Recently she wrote a blog about it. "Beyond us to the north lay Simambya, uninhabited - its name coming from the elision of the Swahili words kisima mbaya, meaning 'bad well'. Twenty miles beyond Simambya was the Somali border. We rarely ventured that way - the Somalis had a reputation as trigger-happy crazies. Shifta, armed Somali bandits, regularly came across the border to rob, occasionally to kill, always to terrify and occasionally to rape [men]. At least once a year they would block the landing strip and attack the local hotel across the bay from us on the mainland." Given its secluded position on the mainland opposite Kiwayu Island, it seems likely that that hotel was the Kiwayu Safari Village.

Media village

It is easy (and annoying) to be wise after the event, but all this information was available online and not hard to find. Perhaps, like many holidaymakers, the Tebbutts relied instead on information that is even more accessible - the travel sections of national newspapers. Like the one in the Sunday Times that carried a piece by Tracey Emin three years ago, describing "a tiny little spot in Kenya called Kiwayu, near the
Somalian border, which has to be one of my favourite places on earth".

Or the Sunday Telegraph, which had it as part of Imelda Staunton's "heaven on earth" - "the stunning Kiwayu resort" - and linked it to a Telegraph travel shop selling trips to Kenya.

Or maybe the Daily Mail, which publicised the Kiwayu Safari Village as lead destination in its "winter beach bonanza" promotion of January 2007. The travel industry subsidises newspapers through advertising. Perhaps it is time for newspapers to include security ratings when they publicise destinations in dangerous areas.

Because they are not playgrounds, these places. You cannot insulate yourself with luxury and an "organic security protocol" from angry, impoverished, radicalised or fanatical communities. Not in Kenya, nor in Indonesia, nor in the Philippines, nor in any of the myriad other torn places where wealthy tourists don't quite rub shoulders with the people they have chosen (not) to visit. The message needs to be made clearer to holidaymakers. Caveat emptor, as they don't say in Somalia.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister