Travel, Insurance and Personal Liability: When Things Go Wrong in an Unpredictable World | Tourism (Australia)

AAs Australians return to the world after the lifting of Covid-related travel restrictions, they find that many things remain the same. Unfortunately, the jet lag is still the same, but there are still rich and rewarding experiences to be had. As a nation, we certainly seem eager to move forward. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) has received a record number of passport applications in recent months, and outbound travel has far exceeded arrivals.

The workload of the Dfat consular service – the small team of professionals who respond when Australians encounter serious difficulties abroad – tells us that some of our fellow Australians face significant disruption and other challenges when of their trip. The number of Australians traveling has yet to reach half the rate recorded in 2019 before the pandemic, yet the number of travelers turning to the consular network for assistance in recent months has increased by 5 % to 15%. The number of cases has been 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 each sector of a travel itinerary. Isolation requirements require major changes to plan for, and when Australians fall ill in places where medical services don’t match those at home, they often turn to their government for help. Many Australians have found themselves affected by the ongoing conflict in some areas and increasingly common extreme weather events. There are other factors, including an increased number of Australians abroad with mental health issues, which matches the experience at home.

Additionally, expectations of what the consular service should do for Australians abroad are very high in these days of instant communications and public comment via social media.

The consular service faced criticism in the early years of the pandemic, when thousands of Australians found themselves stranded by abrupt decisions by politicians back home. During the period of travel restrictions, more than 600,000 Australians have returned home, including around 12,000 on flights organized by Dfat. Australian diplomats remained at their posts in the run-up to vaccination, falling ill with family members like everyone else.

Some of the anger expressed during this period by Australians towards embassy staff was understandable, if misdirected. There is always room for improvement in service delivery.

But many Australian travelers fail to live up to their end of the bargain. Even now, at least one in six Australians traveling overseas do not have travel insurance. It’s insane.

Most people think of travel insurance as a way to cover the loss or theft of personal belongings, or the cost of flight cancellations. But that’s really the least important reason to take cover. Injury, illness or even death abroad can be a very expensive business, and when people neglect to take out insurance, it can lead to a double dose of tragedy.

And tragedy can really strike. In the 12 months to July 2021, four Australians died overseas every 24 hours on average. It was not a Covid spike – indeed the daily overseas death rate was five in 2019, a ‘normal’ year when Australians made 11million overseas trips. About the same number were hospitalized every day that year.

Every year, some Australians are shocked to learn that their government cannot simply step in and cover the cost of their hospitalization and repatriation when they or their loved ones encounter serious misfortune.

I have known since I ran the service in the early 2000s that Australians are regularly forced by circumstances to sell or mortgage their homes to cover the cost of medical evacuation or treatment abroad for them- themselves or for someone they love. Younger and budget travelers are more likely to ignore insurance and more likely to seek consular assistance.

In pre-pandemic times, a young Australian had a serious skiing accident the day before his planned return from the United States after several months of travelling. He had delayed his return for a few days to adjust to the ski trip, but had neglected to extend the medical insurance he had wisely purchased before leaving home. He expired just before he put on his skis. The cost of medical treatment in the United States 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 hardship turning into disaster overseas.

Personal liability abroad

The underlying expectation of many – that ultimately the government will come to the rescue – raises interesting questions about where personal responsibility begins and ends when we leave our shores. When we are at home in Australia, we do not expect our government to step in and help financially with burial costs when a loved one dies, to cover ongoing or elective medical expenses, to resolve our legal issues or even adjust our transport arrangements when things go wrong. But that’s exactly what some Australians abroad expect.

The fearless Australian travel spirit of the 1970s still lives on, but the bar of expectation has undoubtedly risen over the years. Greater public awareness of government-provided services abroad has contributed to this, as has the eagerness of successive governments to please in response to public comment via social media.

But frankly, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.

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