Australians are intrepid travellers.
It's something we pride ourselves on and something we're known for.
I find it gratifying and reassuring that no matter where I travel, it doesn't take long before I hear a "G'day, Kevin" from an Australian who may be holidaying, travelling for business or living overseas.
And I'll be hearing a lot more of it because Australians are travelling more than ever.
And we are on the verge of the school holidays, with families looking to get away for a few weeks of relaxation.
We want those families to have a safe time overseas.
And as the father of three children who have an appetite for travel, I am well aware of the worry that comes with a son or daughter travelling overseas alone for the first time.
My one simple message today is register with Smartraveller.gov.au before you go overseas.
There were 7.6 million resident departures in the year ending June 2011, no doubt helped by the strong Aussie dollar and the increasing availability of affordable long-distance travel.
That's a big increase from the 5.3 million departures of five years ago.
And don't forget, this doesn't count the many Australians who already live overseas.
Around half of all Australians have passports — a life line for travelling.
Compare that with just one third of Americans who have passports.
Not only are we a trading nation, we're a travelling one too.
And at any one time, we have about one million Australians abroad.
On the law of averages, a proportion of them are always going to end up in strife — either fairly or unfairly.
But what does this mean for the Australian Government? It means that our consular services are increasingly important.
Our consular caseload is not only growing in size — we have around 1,600 active cases at any one time, up from around 1,000 in 2005.
But it is also becoming increasingly complex.
We have increases in younger travellers, adventure travellers, senior travellers, first-time travellers and travellers visiting new and harder to reach destinations.
It is sobering to think that last financial year my Department dealt with more than 24,000 consular cases, including:
- 1,203 Australians who were hospitalised overseas;
- 1,069 Australians who were arrested overseas;
- 313 Australians who are in prison overseas; and
- 28 Australians who were evacuated to another location for medical purposes;
Behind these figures are some very real and sometimes sad stories.
Just to give you a couple of examples, in just the last month, my Department has helped:
- the family of a man who was visiting friends in China, was hospitalised and subsequently died;
- a 32 year old who had a fight with a taxi driver in Thailand; and
- a 23 year old who was robbed in Mexico.
That is where the Smartraveller campaign comes in.
Its goal is to help Australians make smart choices about where, when, and how they travel overseas, and what they should do to prepare before they go.
Today, I launch the new phase of the Smartraveller campaign.
Because when we started Smartraveller in 2003 we didn't have smartphones, we didn't have twitter and we didn't have YouTube.
And as I mentioned earlier, we have seen an increase of some 2 million more Australians departing than there were five years ago.
The campaign is funded by a new investment by the Government to the tune of $13 million over four years.
But this will be complemented by a number of other initiatives that make the Smartraveller campaign, well, smarter.
These initiatives, I believe, put us at the very leading edge of consular services around the world.
First, the advertising.
In addition to radio, print and digital ads, we have produced televisions ads which will air from tonight.
Each underlines one simple piece of advice that will go some way to ensure an Australian traveller has trouble-free trip.
The first ad encourages Australians to register their itinerary with us on the Smartraveller website.
If you are registered, we can find you in an emergency.
It's simple, easy and free.
And it could save you and your family hours or even days of heartache.
Registering where you'll be offers that extra piece of mind to a loved one that may be worried for you.
This year we experienced the political unrest in the Middle East, the earthquake in New Zealand and the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.
My Department received 26,000 phone calls, mostly from relatives and friends concerned about the well-being of a loved one.
If that loved one has registered, we'd have a pretty good idea if there really is some cause for concern and it makes it easier for us to confirm their safety.
The second ad is about reading our travel advice and subscribing to it.
We publish individual travel advisories for over 160 countries and we have travel bulletins for issues that cut across countries.
Through the Smartraveller website, you can subscribe and get free updates when our travel advice is updated.
Our travel advice provides the best advice we have on the safety and security environment of a country, as well as on local laws, health conditions and more.
It is drawn from many sources, including advice from our network of overseas missions and intelligence organisations.
Thankfully many people do read our travel advice.
During the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, the number of people who read our travel advice went from 300 a day to 25,000 a day.
The third ad encourages travellers to take out adequate and appropriate travel insurance.
The sad reality is that many Australians find themselves in trouble and don't have travel insurance.
Every year we assist Australians with medical evacuations.
They are then left with a bill for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If you can't afford insurance, you can't afford to travel.
It really is that simple.
Advertising is a good start. But, as I have said, there's a lot more we can do.
I am particularly passionate about making sure we make the best use of technology to help Australian travellers wherever they are in the world.
To this end, we have relaunched our Smartraveller website.
It's cleaner, clearer, more intuitive and easier to navigate.
It takes advantage of social media, with links to twitter, Facebook, and YouTube videos (although maybe not as entertaining as Natalie's work).
It services travellers with special needs — for example there is a youth portal for younger travellers.
Particularly timely as we have people, including my son, finishing year 12 and looking for new adventures in life.
We have also streamlined our travel advisories, with four clear levels of advice.
And I am particularly proud that Australia is one of the few countries in the world to have a mobile website which will allow people to access our Smartraveller services from anywhere in the world.
As of today you can use your mobile smartphone to register on Smartraveller, see updated travel advisories, and get in touch when you are in trouble.
iPad, iPhone, Android mobile — it will work on any smartphone and we are also finalising an iPhone app to be available in the new year.
This is next generation technology and puts us at the forefront of online consular services around the world.
This will complement the DFAT Twitter account that I launched earlier this year.
Seeing how Twitter was used during the Queensland floods proves how valuable this platform can be in harnessing resources and getting life-saving messages out.
We regularly tweet our travel advice when it changes and when consular crises occur.
And we are using YouTube more and more.
We have produced a number of longer videos intended to give travellers an understanding of what we do and how we help.
Starring our unsung heroes, consular officers, who help Australians at our diplomatic posts around the world.
Working with the travel industry
Our final initiative that I am pleased to announce today enables us to work closer with the 30,000 travel agents in Australia who, like us, are working hard to keep Australians safe.
Working with the travel industry, we have developed new interactive e-learning tools.
To make it easier to help people register their travel and to make it easier to give them advice about the country they are heading to.
We are working hard to adapt to the changing needs of travelling Australians.
This Government will always make the safety and security of Australians its highest priority.
Australians expect the Government to provide them with a world-class consular service.
But in return we need the Australian public to help us.
When you leave our shores, you've also left our legal system.
So if you break the law overseas, you are subject to that country's laws — which might seem harsh by Australian standards.
Have no doubt, if an Australian gets in legal trouble overseas, we will do everything we can to help.
And that means every traveller and every trip.
But we cannot perform miracles because we have to respect the legal systems of foreign countries — whether we approve of them or not.
While I will be spending Christmas on the beautiful Sunshine Coast, for those Australians travelling abroad, I hope you have an adventure worth a million memories and that you stay safe.
And if I could just part with some advice for those travelling overseas and not sure what to get loved ones for Christmas.
There is a simple and cheap gift: read the Smartraveller travel advice, register your whereabouts and get travel insurance.
Peace of mind for your parents and families is a priceless gift.
And one I guarantee they will appreciate if they can't get in contact with you.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555