AAustralians have returned to the world following the lifting of Covid-related restrictions, finding that many things remain the same. Jet lag still feels the same, sadly, but there are richer and more rewarding experiences out there. As a nation we seem determined to get on with it. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) has received record numbers of passport applications in recent months, with outbound travel exceeding arrivals.
The increasing work of the Dfat embassy – a small group of professionals who respond to Australians when they face problems abroad – tells us that some of our citizens are facing disruptions and other difficulties in their travels. The number of Australians traveling is less than half of what was recorded during the 2019 pandemic, yet the number of travelers turning to the embassy network for help in the past few months has risen between 5% and 15%. Crime rates have risen sharply in popular destinations such as Fiji, Indonesia and Thailand.
This shows that the world is an unpredictable place right now.
Covid-19 is still widespread around the world, and the risk of contracting the virus increases with each step of the journey. Self-isolation requirements require significant changes to prepare, and when Australians fall ill in places where medical care is not the same as at home, they often turn to the government for help. Many Australians have been affected by the conflicts taking place in other regions and the increasing number of extreme weather events. There are other factors, including the number of Australians overseas with mental health issues, in relation to what happened at home.
Also, the expectations of the diplomatic service to Australians abroad are very high in these days of instant communication and social media.
The ambassador’s role was criticized in the early years of the pandemic, when thousands of Australians found themselves stranded by emergency elections where politicians returned home. During the travel ban, more than 600,000 Australians returned home, including about 12,000 on travel arrangements organized by Dfat. Australian diplomats remained in their posts before the vaccination, getting sick with their families like everyone else.
Some of the anger expressed at the time by Australians at the embassy was understandable, if not well-received. There is always an opportunity to contribute better.
But many Australian travelers are not living up to their expectations. Even now, one in six Australians who travel overseas do not have travel insurance. This is insane.
Many people think of travel insurance as a way to cover the loss or theft of their personal experience, or the cost of canceling a flight. But this is the least reason to get a cover. Injury, illness or death overseas can be a very expensive business, and when people neglect to buy insurance, it can cause double the trouble.
And disaster can indeed happen. In the 12 months to July 2021, four Australians will die overseas every 24 hours on average. This was not the rise of Covid – indeed, the daily death toll was the fifth highest in 2019, a “normal” year when Australians traveled 11 million times overseas. About the same number were hospitalized each day that year.
Every year some Australians are shocked to learn that their government can’t just step in and pay for their hospitalization and repatriation when they or their loved ones suffer a major disaster.
I know from my time working in the early 2000s that Australians were forced to sell or mortgage their homes to pay for evictions or treatment abroad for themselves or a loved one. Young people and those traveling on a budget tend to skip insurance, and often seek the help of an embassy.
During the pandemic a young Australian had a ski accident on the same day he was due to return from the US after traveling for months. He delayed his return for a few days to make up for the ski trip but neglected to add the medical insurance he had wisely taken out before leaving home. He ran out of time before he tied his skis. The cost of health care in the US can be prohibitive, and a family could end up paying a very high price.
At least this guy tried. But not enough Australians are doing the least they can to reduce the risk of having an overseas problem.
Personal responsibility abroad
The great hope of many – that eventually the government will come to the rescue – raises interesting questions about where personal responsibility begins and ends when we leave the beach. When we live in Australia, we don’t expect the government to help us pay for the funeral of a loved one, to pay for hospital bills, to fix our legal problems or even to arrange our transportation when things happen. go wrong. But this is what Australians expect overseas.
The bold Aussie travel spirit of the 1970s is still there, but expectations have undoubtedly risen over the years. Public awareness of government services abroad has helped this, as have successive governments seeking to entertain by responding to public comments through the media.
But frankly, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.