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Is it Safe to Travel to Australia? What the Travel Experts Say (2021 Update)

By Kit KieferMarch 2, 2020

Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash

 

In our 2019 Safest Places Ratings, Australia claimed the top spot and was named the world’s safest destination. Shortly thereafter, the country experienced widespread wildfires wreaking havoc on tourism. After that, a pandemic struck. Given all that, it’s reasonable to ask whether it’s safe to travel to Australia.

Short answer: yes.

Nothing has fundamentally changed the fact that Australia is a very safe country for travelers, though the fires are a stark reminder that not even the safest destination on the planet is immune from devastating natural disasters.

However, if you’re wondering how the fires changed the Australia travel experience, you’re not alone. 

Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn from Pexels

About the fires

Australia has brush fires every year. Like California, Australia has a rainier season where underbrush can grow quickly. Also like California, Australia has a drier season where the underbrush dies and dries, making it perfect fire-starting material.

Dry weather and poorly controlled burns led to a series of extremely severe fires that were 50 times bigger than California’s largest recorded wildfire, charring more than 37,500 square miles across southern and eastern Australia. That’s an area bigger than Portugal! 

Where the fires struck

Fires hit every Australian state. They virtually ringed the country, except for a small area in the country’s northwest.

Hardest-hit areas included the states of New South Wales and Victoria – home to Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. 

The fires had severe collateral impacts as well. Air quality was a major concern in Australia’s largest cities – Melbourne, Sydney, and the capital, Canberra. 

In addition, habitat was destroyed that provided food and shelter for many of the country’s unique plant and animal species. 

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Impacts on Australia’s unique biodiversity

While Australian cities show no effects from the wildfires, things are different out in the bush.

Australia is a country that is used to fire; its flora and fauna are resilient, and some rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. However, fires of this magnitude are not something that can be overcome in a matter of months.

New growth is filling in many of the burned-over areas. However, there are deeper sorts of long-lasting damages that the new growth covered up. 

For example, WIRED reported that 70 of the 832 species of native vertebrate animals that live in the affected territory had more than 30 percent of their habitat burned, and 21 of these were already listed by the Australian government as threatened with extinction.

“These include iconic Australian species like koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies,” WIRED noted, “and lesser-known species like the Kangaroo Island dunnart, a mouse-like marsupial that was already listed as endangered, then lost over 80 percent of its habitat to the bushfires. And these are just the vertebrates – untold numbers of invertebrates burned too.”

Travelers to Australia who are taking a hit-the-highlights sort of trip may not notice much has changed in the country. However, people who have visited the country’s forests before may notice significantly less wildlife when they return. 

Because of that, people who are planning a wildlife or backcountry vacation to Australia may want to delay their trip until the bush has time to recover. For anyone else, the best time to visit Australia is as soon as the pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted. 

Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

An Australian's Perspective

Anthony Bianco, a travel blogger at The Travel Tart who lives in Brisbane, gave this advice to  travelers thinking of visiting Australia:

“Like everyone else, I [was] horrified at the impacts the bushfires have had on Australia. It’s hard to not be affected by the graphic images. And the worst thing is that many people have paid the ultimate price, including United States citizens who were out here trying to put these fires out (Australians are very grateful for this help – and we’re never going to forget this).

“But, let’s put everything into perspective. 

“The areas that have been affected by bushfires are away from Australia’s major tourist attractions. It’s unlikely that visitors will experience any issues, unless you’re planning a road trip through one of these places – which is unlikely, as the worst affected places in New South Wales and Victoria are geared more towards domestic tourism. 

“Yes, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane did experience some very poor air quality days, but these impacts have now largely stopped.

“Remember that Australia is a big place – it’s a similar size to the United States or Europe. Australia is definitely open for business and the most popular places that tourists visit – the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the capital cities and the vast majority of the rest of the country – are all safe to visit.”

American tourists traveling to Australia

They may be safe, but they’re also out of reach, because currently American tourists can’t travel to Australia. The country has closed its borders to most internationals, though it is allowing some limited regional travel for residents of New Zealand.

The State Department has given the country a safety rating of 2, or “exercise increased caution,” but only because of COVID. However, at this point a safety rating is purely academic, meant for comparison purposes only.

The country and region have done an exceptional job controlling the virus’s spread and are wary about opening up too much too quickly, meaning Australia may be one of the last countries in the world to open up to American travelers.

However, when the country reopens to Americans, the State Department's recommendations are roughly the same as they are for visiting any country: 

  • Visit travel.state.gov for travel warnings, travel alerts, and country information
  • Know the locations and phone numbers of the U.S. embassy and consulates in Australia
  • U.S. State Department – Consular Affairs: 1-888-407-4747 or 202-501-4444
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive travel and security updates
  • Follow the State Department on Facebook and Twitter

The State Department recommendations are standard stuff, and there’s every expectation that Australia will be given the State Department’s highest safety rating when it reopens to American travelers. Nothing on the safety side should stop you from planning your Australian vacation.

Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

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What if the roles were reversed?

Bianco encouraged American tourists to imagine if this had happened to their country.

“I visited New Orleans in January 2006, a few months after Hurricane Katrina hit,” he said. “I hadn't planned on visiting post-Katrina intentionally, but I didn't think about cancelling because it was safe to visit. I had a great time and I want to go back to ‘The Big Easy’ again one day.

“I won’t forget a conversation I had with a local voodoo-shop owner who said to me, ‘Thanks so much for visiting New Orleans and bringing your money here, and make sure you tell everyone you know to come and visit. We really need people like you to come here’.

“The bottom line is that the worst thing you can do is cancel your trip, or not book it at all. The best way to help Australia right now is to come over and visit  – especially unaffected regional and remote areas.

“And if you want to visit a fire-affected area, just make sure it’s safe. It does make sense to go back to disaster-hit areas once it's safe and services are back up and running to help support that economy, and you’ll be surprised just how quickly places bounce back!”

Travel insurance and Australia

It’s a good idea to buy travel insurance if you’re headed to Australia, but it’s also good to know what travel insurance can cover for such a trip.

Also, since wildfires are likely to be a fact of life for travelers to Australia moving forward, knowing how travel insurance can help in case of fire is also important.

Trip interruption and cancellation

Most travel insurance plans from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection will cover you if your destination is made uninhabitable by fire – however, in the case of fire, what does “uninhabitable” mean?

Obviously, if the area where you were supposed to stay is under an evacuation order, that’s uninhabitable. If your hotel has burned down, that’s uninhabitable. If your hotel is still standing but it’s impossible to get to, that’s also uninhabitable.

But what if the air quality is so bad that it poses a severe health risk? The answer is yes, that would most likely be a covered reason for trip cancellation or interruption – but make sure of that with your travel-insurance company before you leave … and get it in writing.

Photo by Alex King on Unsplash

Emergency health insurance

If you have to go to the emergency room or seek other medical treatment because of fire-related illnesses or injuries, that would also be covered.

Even if the fires exacerbated a pre-existing condition and you didn’t have coverage for pre-existing medical conditions it would still be covered, since the condition’s flareup was caused by a natural disaster.

Emergency medical evacuation

Travelers who become sick or injured and have to be evacuated from a fire zone could be reimbursed for the costs of the evacuation (up to the policy limit) under most BHTP plans.

Luggage

Most BHTP plans offer reimbursement for luggage and its contents damaged by fire. Either take a picture of the contents of your bags or save receipts to expedite the reimbursement process.

The bottom line Down Under is that Australia is a safe country – but unsafe things can happen even in the safest of countries. Travel, enjoy, but understand the risks.

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Kit Kiefer
Kit Kiefer

Kit Kiefer is a former travel writer for The New York Times and has more than 30 years of freelance experience writing about domestic and international travel. He blogs and produces content for Winbound, a content marketing firm.

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Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection (BHTP) is a registered trademark and a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company (BHSI), a leader in specialized casualty and liability insurance.  The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable.  BHTP disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information.  The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

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