Wales

The honorary consul who may be down your street

Image caption It looks like any travel agency on a high street, but Sam Smith Travel is also the base of the honorary consul for Norway, the Netherlands and Tunisia

Wales has 28 honorary consuls and the Welsh government says it would like to see more - so who are they and what exactly do they do? Gemma Ryall found out.

From the outside, it looks like a normal travel agency in the quaint market town of Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan.

But two small, colourful shields at its entrance give a hint that inside all is not as it may seem at Sam Smith Travel.

Through the doors, among the holiday brochures, are bulletproof security screens, fingerprint technology and photographic recognition devices.

Image caption At the entrance of Sam Smith Travel are his consulate plaques

This isn't just a normal office - it is also the base of one of the 28 honorary consuls based in Wales.

Sam Smith is not only the longest-serving, he has to be one of the busiest too, with three roles as honorary consul for Norway, the Netherlands and Tunisia - on top of his day job running his travel agency.

"The Netherlands role is by far the busiest," said Mr Smith, who was first given the post of honorary consul to Tunisia in 1984 after his friend Viscount Tonypandy, who was then Speaker of the House of Commons, recommended him to the Tunisian ambassador.

"We get about 50 people in a week or more in our office. We're one of eight consuls in the UK for the Netherlands that have biometric facilities for passport issue and I'm the nearest consul for people in Wales and the west of England.

"We get foreign people who want to get visas for the Netherlands too - people from the universities in south Wales, along with Bristol, Bath and Gloucester.

"Sometimes people are slightly surprised to find us in a travel agency but if you think about it, it's in a very central position."

Consuls are appointed to look after the interests of their nationals in Wales, although they do not have to be from that country themselves.

In Wales, there is representation from countries around the world - from France and Germany to Lesotho and Kazakhstan - working alongside UK embassies.

But honorary consuls are not all based in grand buildings with flags flying outside as one might expect.

In Wales, they tend to work out of normal offices and their homes - the honorary consul for Italy is based on a residential street in Canton, Cardiff, for instance, while the Swedish honorary consul is based in a legal firm's office in Cardiff city centre.

More unusually, the honorary consul for Malta works from picturesque Fonmon Castle in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan and the honorary consul for Brazil is a scientist based in a laboratory in Cardiff.

But despite their varied bases, all consuls work to encourage commercial, academic and cultural activities between Wales and the countries they represent.

Most recently, they have been instrumental in trying to encourage their countries to use Wales as a base for their teams during the London Olympics.

Lesotho's Olympic team were the latest to announce they will base their pre-games training camp in Wrexham.

"We have been pushing quite hard for Olympic teams," said Clive Williams, who has been the honorary consul for Romania since 2007, chosen because his company has business links there.

"My ambassador met with [First Minister] Carwyn Jones in January and it was very much a case of 'yes, we're looking at Wales but we also have two or three other offers'. I think they include Manchester and Birmingham.

"But I think the ambassador has quite a fond view of Cardiff. They haven't decided yet and we're trying to put together a better proposal so we'll see."

Forging business links is also essential, as well as helping their country's nationals in crisis, such as helping people get home if they lose their passports and arranging the repatriation of bodies.

"We've had to help with people who jump ship and arrange for them to get home again," said Mr Williams, who is available to help an estimated 3,500 Romanian people who live in Wales and those who visit.

"There was one case where a 17-year-old boy jumped ship off Swansea. He turned up at Swansea Railway Station and I had a phone call from British Transport Police.

"When I got to him he was glad to have got off the ship, which was a working ship, and he wanted to go home. So I got in touch with Swansea social services who arranged for him to go home.

"A lot of my job is knowing the right people and I get a lot of support from the consular office."

Image caption Clive Williams (R), the Romanian honorary consul, works to improve business links with Wales

Undertaking ceremonial roles in festivals and events are also an important part of the job, along with some more unusual duties.

"We are alerted every time a Dutch submarine comes here, for example" said Mr Smith, who became Norwegian honorary consul in 1996 and the Dutch honorary consul in 2001.

"Dutch subs like coming here - some are official visits and a lot more are unofficial visits.

"We go and visit them and see if they need anything."

It seems a lot of added work for people who do the jobs of honorary consuls on a voluntary basis on top of their day jobs for no extra salary.

So why do people do it?

Mr Williams works out of an unassuming building on Hirwaun Industrial Estate and is yet to find a flag pole to raise his consular flag outside it.

He said: "If I'm being brutally honest, it's been one of the best experiences I have ever had.

Image caption Sam Smith is the only Welsh consul to represent three countries

"You get to see a side of life that a lot of people don't get to see.

"I was at the opening of the Senedd building and met the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. And I was invited for lunch once with Gordon Brown and the then-Romanian Prime Minister."

And now that the Welsh government has said it would like to see more honorary consuls based in Wales, is it a job that anyone can do?

Dr Lolita Tsanaclis, the honorary consul for Brazil and secretary of the Consular Association in Wales, said: "You have to be recommended and then there is quite a long process of checks.

"I was recommended to the Brazilian ambassador, partly I think because someone knew I was Brazilian and the ambassador always visited the laboratory I work in in Cardiff.

Image caption Dr Lolita Tsanaclis is the Brazilian honorary consul but also works as a scientist at a Cardiff lab

"But it then took another year and a half because I needed to be approved by both the Brazilian central government and the British government.

"Every consul has a different remit. Some, like France and Germany are very busy as they have a lot of nationals to look after. Others, like myself, aren't so busy as there aren't that many Brazilians in Wales.

"But I am proud to do the job. I put together the University of Glamorgan and the University of Sao Paulo so they now do exchanges and share research.

"I also try to bring the Brazilian community together here with events."

Mr Williams said he too would like to see more honorary consuls based in Wales.

He said: "I think honorary consuls have a responsibility to Wales as well as the country they represent and a lot of the work we do, particularly in business, brings benefits to both countries," he added.

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