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Is it Safe to Travel to Australia? What the Travel Experts Say

By Kit KieferMarch 2, 2020

(Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash.)

 

If you read our Safest Places Ratings and saw that Australia was named the world’s safest destination, you might find it odd that we’re asking whether it’s safe to travel to Australia. However, the recent bushfires that have scorched thousands of square miles have unfortunately forced many to ask us: Is it safe to travel to Australia?

While Australia is a safe country for travelers, and nothing has fundamentally changed that, the wildfires do require travelers to make some adjustments if they plan on visiting the country.

Beyond that, the 2019-20 fires are a stark reminder that not even the safest destination on the planet is immune from widespread natural disasters.

(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.

Indigenous Australians were adept at very slow, controlled burns that helped control wildfires. Non-natives have not been as adept. When increased land clearing and urban sprawl are added, and climate change layered on top, the result has been a series of extremely severe fires that have charred more than 34,000 square miles as of early January 2020, according to NBC News.

Just for comparison, that’s an area about the size of Indiana – an area 5,000 square miles more than the area burned in 2019’s Amazon rainforest fires, and 80 times larger than the area burned in the 2019 California wildfires.

Here are all the areas that have had bushfires in the Australian summer of 2019-2020: 

Where the fires are

Fires have hit every Australian state. A map of the fire zones show they virtually ring 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.

Victoria declared a state of disaster January 2 for the eastern part of the state and issued evacuation orders for some locales.

New South Wales created a tourist leave zone on its southern coast on January 4, stretching from south of Sydney to the Victoria border. Tourists had to evacuate the area, with no return date set.

While popular nature locations like Kangaroo Island were hard-hit, Tourism Australia noted that most of the area’s most popular tourist destinations remained open through the worst of the fires.

(Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash)

Collateral Impacts

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.

However, that part of the crisis has abated, and air quality in Australia’s major cities is largely back to normal. 

In all, while the fires made January an incredibly difficult month for the country, February and March saw fewer fires, and there are even signs of an early recovery in some of Australia's forests. 

 

(Photo by Alex King on Unsplash)

Should travelers visit Australia right now?

Large parts of the country are in fire-fighting and/or recovery mode – but Australia is a huge country, and the vast majority of the country (the interior, in particular) has not been affected by the fires.

That’s the glass-half-full approach. The glass-half-empty argument is that the places that have been affected are many of the places with greatest tourist appeal.

Tourism Australia, the country’s tourism authority, acknowledges the country’s difficulties from a travel-and-tourism standpoint.

“Our incredible tourism businesses and operators in fire-affected regions are doing it tough right now, and it is vital we encourage Australians and international tourists to visit these communities so they can thrive again,” TA Managing Director Philippa Harrison said in a statement.

In a different statement, Harrison had specific recommendations for travelers looking at coming to Australia:

  • Seek the most up-to-date information prior to departure and try to stay informed about changing conditions while on the ground.
  • Get the latest fire warnings from the Australian Government’s meteorology bureau at bom.gov.au.
  • For specific destinations, get updates from the local Rural Fire Service, national park or relevant state or territory emergency agencies.
  • Speak with staff at local visitor-information centers for advice about local conditions.

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've been 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."

 

(Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash)

American tourists traveling to Australia

The State Department also acknowledges the duality of travel safety in a fire-ravaged Australia. It gives the country its highest possible safety rating – a 1, meaning “exercise normal precautions,” while issuing a lengthy safety advisory about the fires.

In addition to Tourism Australia’s safe-travel recommendations, the State Department recommends that you:

  • Exercise increased caution when considering travel to areas affected by bushfires until the risks have passed and the air quality is improved.
  • Follow local evacuation orders.
  • Check the air quality for your destinations and take necessary precautions.
  • Monitor local news media outlets for updates on areas under evacuation.
  • Dial 000 for immediate assistance from the police, ambulance service, or fire brigade.

These recommendations are on top of the State Department's recommendations for visiting virtually 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

However, outside of the areas under evacuation orders, the State Department does not recommend that you stay away from any areas of Australia, nor does it dissuade you from visiting the country. It just wants you to consider the risks before traveling.

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!”

(Photo by unknown photographer from Pexels)

Travel insurance and the Australia wildfires

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 does and doesn’t cover for such a trip.

Trip Interruption and Cancellation

Most travel insurance plans from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection will cover you if your destination is made uninhabitable – 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.  It’s important to understand these are terms defined in the insurance policy and you should consult your policy for specific details.

Don’t leave anything unanswered when you purchase your travel insurance.  Ask your travel insurance provider before you purchase.

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 may also be covered.

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 in the midst of a natural disaster that jeopardizes its safety. Travel, enjoy, but understand the risks.

QUESTIONS ABOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE?

Check out our online guide, "What Is Travel Insurance All About?" We’ve provided in-depth answers to all your travel insurance questions, starting with the basics.

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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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