Tour operators are re-evaluating tours to Mali as the Foreign Office (FCO) advises against all travel to provinces of Mali, north of the River Niger from Mopti, including Timbuktu.

In a revision to its travel advice to the sub-Saharan region, the FCO said tourists could become victims of kidnappers.

In January this year, a group of European tourists were seized in the Mali-Niger border near Menaka; a British national who was part of the group was later murdered.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQ-M) operates directly or through criminal gangs who carry out the kidnappings on its behalf in Mali, the FCO said.

Some operators had already suspended tours to the area before the latest advisory was issued. Cox and Kings senior marketing manager Paul Hopkinson said the destination had been off the itinerary since September because of safety concerns in Timbuktu.

As an alternative, agents could recommend Ethiopia and Mozambique for an authentic and not-so-typical African experience, he said.

“Mali is a very unique destination. In terms of ‘off the beaten track’, it’s probably one of the few destinations we feature in northwest Africa. At an extreme there is Namibia,” said Hopkinson.

Exodus marketing manager Robert Dixon said the company offers a number of Mali adventure holidays, but none were due for departure until February 2010. If the situation had not been resolved by then, customers would be offered an alternative. They would also be offered a full refund if they preferred, he said.

“The problem with Mali is there is nothing like it. If you want Timbuktu, then Rome won’t do,” said Dixon.

Exodus has had previous experience of trouble in Mali. In January it had clients on its annual World Music Festival in the Desert package when the European hostages were taken. Fortunately, the group was based in Essakane, nowhere near where the kidnappings took place, but the company still had to take precautions.

“While the clients were on the trip, the advice changed and so we had to warn them the advice had been upgraded and ask them to read it,” said Dixon.