In the next few days, we'll see the high point of the Danube flooding hit Serbia. We all hope that the flood defences and preparations hold. And in the next few weeks, I think we are also hopeful that summer really isn't far away. That will mean the tourism industry stepping up a gear.
I wrote last month about the impact of social media on diplomacy. One aspect I didn't mention was consular work, and here too, it's just as revolutionary.
I have two job titles, Deputy Head of Mission and Consul General. In theory that makes me responsible for the 30,000 or so Brits (and growing) who visit Serbia every year, and the hundreds who are resident here. In practice the work is done by a small professional consular team at the Embassy who form part of a wider regional consular network.
What do they do? Last year the majority of the cases were helping out with lost or stolen passports, arrests and hospitalisations of British nationals. But they provide the full range of consular services. Novi Sad seems to be the venue for the largest groups of Brits this year: whether the Tartan Army's visit for the World Cup qualifier at the end of March; or the Exit music festival in July.
The Consular team also make sure travel advice is accurate and up to date (including information on flooding if it becomes a serious risk). And they play a lead role in our crisis planning work. Crisis planning more widely is crucial for the FCO, and we take our role here very seriously, testing our plan and processes regularly.
That brings me back to social media. We used to have in place a system called LOCATE, essentially a database for British nationals to register their details, which we would use to contact them in the event of a crisis or something going wrong. But when we reviewed the system we concluded that it wasn't working: often it wasn't used, or details were out of date. In fact in some cases during the Arab Spring or the earthquake in Japan, it was hindering our work. So we turned it off on 14 May. Instead we want to gather details on the spot, so we know where people are and what they need. We'll offer different ways to get in touch: telephone, SMS, internet, and of course facebook and twitter (@fcotravel). We won't stop using traditional means of getting in touch, but we want to exploit all the synergies social media has to offer.
What don't we do? Some great worldwide examples of what we don't do include silencing noisy cockerels, and the factoid that 78% mistakenly think we can get people out of jail. The team tell me that visitors to Serbia are all very sensible (of course!), and the cost of motorway tolls is a more likely random question. I should also say that unlike some other countries, consular section is not responsible for visas. For that, you should contact the UK Border Agency.
One of the best consular stories from the end of last summer was that of a British national, who came to Belgrade for the Prodigy concert. He went missing for 4 days, causing something of a manhunt, only to resurface none the worse for wear, to say he had just had 4 of the best days of his life, and if he had the chance, he would do it again. That's a great advertisement for Serbia. But I hope that in the future, he, and others living in and visiting Serbia, will stay in touch. And I hope social media makes it that bit easier.