Travelling? Pack plenty of self-reliance

More Australians are travelling overseas than ever before – 8 million left our shores in 2012. But, too many simply adopt a ‘she’ll be right, mate’ approach to their personal safety and health, and when they get into trouble expect our under-resourced consular service to come to their rescue. Increasingly, they’re finding they are on their own.

By Dr Eddy Bajrovic, Medical Director, Travelvax Australia.

 Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) gets some strange requests and queries. Like “Could DFAT feed my dog while I’m away?” or “Will the sand in Egypt upset my asthma?”

Now, you might shake your head and laugh – or cry – but those questions and many like them are symptomatic of the unreal expectations Australians heading overseas have of the department. They are also a measure of why so many get into strife abroad each year.

Australians are travelling more than ever. Almost half the Australian population hold passports, and more than 1.7 million Australian passports were issued in 2012 alone.

We made over 8 million trips overseas in 2012 – double the number of a decade ago. The number under 25s heading abroad has more than doubled in that time, while the number of over-55’s has trebled.

With more people travelling comes more arrests, deaths and hospital admissions. The number in each category has more than doubled since 2003.

For many, it’s a one-way trip

On average, more than 1000 Australians die overseas each year, according to DFAT figures.

Last year, more than 100 Aussies died in Thailand: tragically, many were young people involved in accidents. Another 60 Australians died in Greece – mainly older travellers who succumbed to ‘natural causes’, most commonly cardiovascular disease.

This disturbing data was compiled in a comprehensive report by the Lowy Institute, an Australian policy think tank that provides ‘high-quality research and distinctive perspectives on the trends shaping Australia and the world’, and policy options for addressing them. Entitled Consular Conundrums, Alex Oliver’s report highlights the stark challenge for our under-resourced consular service as the number of younger and older Australians travelling overseas soars ever higher.

“Public expectations of the assistance government can provide when travellers encounter trouble are rapidly rising, fuelled by intense media and political attention on high-profile cases,” Alex Oliver wrote.

Inexperienced younger travellers are more likely to get into legal or financial trouble, while older travellers are more likely to face health problem. Rates of death and injury are more common now due to the growth in adventure travel and extreme sports.

Help may be hard to find

“Travellers are visiting more exotic, unusual, geographically remote, and sometimes politically unstable destinations,” Oliver writes.

“The fastest-growing destinations, such as India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and China are also places where consular work can be more challenging because of fewer and less sophisticated local services.”

In addition, more people heading overseas with mental illnesses and more are leaving on one-way tickets.

Not surprisingly, travel illnesses among Australians are on the rise, too. Rates of typhoid among returned travellers have doubled in the past 5 years, and most cases of hepatitis A are ‘imported’.

Meanwhile, a dose of dengue fever has become a common memento for hundreds visiting Asia – 1351 to date just this year.

One-in-10 travellers needs a doctor

Yet, a survey of just over 1000 18-year-old Australian travellers earlier this year, revealed that 50% did not have any of the recommended shots before their last trip. And, of those people visiting friends and relatives overseas, almost two-thirds (62%) were not vaccinated.

Health authorities blame complacency and a lack of awareness of just how serious the personal health consequences can be – particularly for those who fall ill and need treatment overseas. More than 50% of international travellers visiting a developing country experienced some form of illness during their trip and for almost 1-in-10 the illness was serious enough to need medical attention while they were away or after they got home.

More than ever, travellers need to realise that the more they travel the higher the likelihood that they will be exposed to contaminated food or drink, an infected mosquito, or some other source of illness. That is particularly true for people travelling to visit family and friends overseas.

But, travellers can do much to safeguard their health by having highly effective vaccines – which generally protect for many years – before they go. There are also simple day-to-day measures they can take, such as preventing mosquito bites and choosing safe food and water options.

Aussies lax on insurance, too

Aussies are also adopting a ‘she’ll be right, mate’ attitude to travel insurance, according to Alex Oliver. She writes: “The fact that fewer Australians take out travel insurance than travellers from comparable countries suggests that more travellers need to address the issue of personal responsibility.

“The growing incidence of Australians overseas demanding that government intervene in their cases no matter how trivial, foolhardy or avoidable their predicament would seem at odds with a national culture that prides itself on resilience and resourcefulness.”

The report notes that cheap international airfares have ‘facilitated travel by those with more limited financial means and who are more likely to need greater support if they get into distress’.

On average more than 20,000 travelling Australians seek help each year and the cases are becoming increasingly complex and demanding.

DFAT currently allocates around half a million dollars annually for emergency travellers’ loans for Australian tourists who run out of money and have exhausted all other means of surviving or returning to Australia.

However, these demands on Australia’s consular service are becoming increasingly difficult to meet, especially as DFAT’s operating budget is whittled away year after year by successive governments.

DFAT is doing less with less

Oliver says DFAT will continue to encourage travellers to assume more responsibility and to ‘manage down’ their expectations of what their governments will and won’t do to assist them overseas. In recent years DFAT has revamped its travel website, started a new Facebook page, and launched an iPhone app which simplifies registration of travel plans and allows DFAT to disseminate individualised mobile travel notifications.

In this, Australia is ahead of the UK and most of the world and only months behind the US Department of State in technological innovation, says Oliver.

But, if DFAT is to continue to provide even the current levels of consular service, more funding must be found. The report suggests a modest special levy on the cost of obtaining a passport or buying an airline ticket, or redirecting revenue back to DFAT from the 180,000-plus notarial services it performs annually at its offices overseas.

A $20 premium on the cost of a passport, together with the redirection of revenue from notarial services, would generate an additional $30-40 million. If directed to consular functions, it could fund additional consular staff and relieving pressure on the rest of the department.

Unfortunately, I suspect they won’t convince some travellers not to gamble with their freedom, their safety, or their health.

Read Consular Conundrums.