AAs Australians step back out into the world following the lifting of Covid-related travel restrictions, they are finding that many things remain the same. Jetlag sadly still feels that way, but there are still rich and rewarding experiences out there. As a nation, we certainly seem keen to go ahead with this. The Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) has received a record number of passport applications in recent months and trips abroad have far outpaced arrivals.
The case count of DFAT’s consular service – the small team of professionals who respond when Australians face serious difficulties abroad – tells us that some of our fellow citizens are experiencing significant disruption and other challenges during their travels. The number of Australians traveling has not yet reached half the rate recorded before the 2019 pandemic, and yet the number of travelers turning to the consular network for help has increased by 5% to 15% in recent months. The number of cases was particularly high in popular regional destinations such as Fiji, Indonesia and Thailand.
This partly reflects the reality that the world is an unpredictable place right now.
Covid-19 remains widespread around the world and the risk of contracting the virus increases with every leg of an itinerary. Isolation requirements call for major changes in plans, and when Australians fall ill in places where medical care doesn’t match those at home, they often turn to their government for help. Conflict in some regions and increasingly frequent extreme weather events are affecting many Australians. There are other factors, including an increased number of Australians abroad with mental health problems, which are consistent with experiences at home.
Also, in these days of instant communication and public feedback via social media, expectations of what the consular service should do for Australians abroad are very high.
The consular service came under fire in the early years of the pandemic, when abrupt decisions by politicians left thousands of Australians stranded at home. More than 600,000 Australians returned home during the travel restrictions, including about 12,000 on DFAT-arranged flights. Australian diplomats stayed at their posts in the pre-vaccination period and, like everyone else, fell ill along with their family members.
Some of the anger expressed by Australians at embassy staff during this period was understandable, if misguided. There is always room for improvement in service delivery.
But many Australian travelers don’t keep their side of the bargain. Already at least one in six Australians traveling abroad does not take out travel insurance. That’s crazy.
Most people think of travel insurance to cover the loss or theft of their personal belongings or the cost of flight cancellations. But that’s really the least important reason to get insurance. Injury, illness or even death abroad can be a very expensive proposition and when people fail to get insurance, it can result in a double tragedy.
And tragedy can really strike. In the 12 months to July 2021, an average of four Australians died abroad every 24 hours. This wasn’t a Covid spike – in fact, the daily death rate abroad was five in 2019, a “normal” year when Australians made 11 million trips abroad. About the same number have been hospitalized every day this year.
Every year, some Australians are shocked to learn that their government cannot simply step in and pay for their hospitalization and repatriation if they or their loved ones experience a serious tragedy.
I know from my own time leading the service in the early 2000s that Australians are regularly forced by circumstances to sell or re-mortgage their homes to meet the cost of a medical evacuation or treatment abroad for themselves or someone who they love to cover. Young people and budget travelers are more likely to forego insurance and are the most likely to resort to consular assistance.
In pre-pandemic times, a young Australian had a serious skiing accident the day before he was due to return home from the US after traveling for several months. He had delayed his return by a few days to fit in the ski trip, but failed to renew the medical insurance he had reasonably taken out before leaving. It expired just before he strapped on his skis. The cost of medical treatment in the US can be prohibitive and the family ended up paying a very high price.
At least, this young man tried. But not enough Australians are doing their part to minimize the risk of trouble overseas turning into a disaster.
The underlying expectation of many – that government will come to the rescue in the end – raises interesting questions about where personal responsibility begins and ends when we leave our shores. When we are back home in Australia we do not expect our government to step in and help financially with funeral expenses when a loved one dies, to cover ongoing or voluntary medical expenses, to sort out our legal problems or even to sort out our transport arrangements, when things go wrong. But that’s exactly what some Australians expect abroad.
The intrepid Australian travel spirit of the 1970s still exists, but the bar of expectations has undoubtedly risen over the years. Greater public awareness of the services provided by government abroad has helped, as has successive governments’ eagerness to please in response to public feedback via social media.
But frankly, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel either.