Hints for Australian Travellers

Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the launch of the 1998 edition of Hints for Australian Travellers
Sydney, 4 December 1998


Thank you, Bill; ladies and gentlemen. Before we begin, I'd like to express my appreciation to Bill Tweddell, First Assistant Secretary of the Public Affairs and Consular Division of my Department; and other Departmental officials responsible for consular affairs who are here, for the hard work they have put into the new edition of Hints for Australian Travellers. I'm also pleased to welcome Ms Virginia Wilton and Mr Bruce Hanford, representing Brown and Wilton, publishers of the new edition.

More Australians travelling - more consular assistance

In the 1997-98 financial year, around 2.6 million Australians travelled overseas, up by almost 400 000 on the previous year. Patterns of travel were also changing - we Australians went to a greater variety of destinations, more of us travelled alone, and more young women went overseas. The vast majority of travellers did not seek consular assistance from an Australian Embassy or Consulate during their travels, and may have had little more to worry them than whether some scenic spot lived up to its guidebook reputation, or whether they could find themselves a meat pie or Fosters on their travels.

But all were potential customers of the consular services offered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And in that year, more than 19 000 Australians at home and abroad did avail themselves of our consular services, and were given general welfare guidance and assistance.

Of that number, about 900 received assistance for some form of hospitalisation or medical evacuation, around 1 200 persons were given advice concerning Australian relatives or friends who had failed to make scheduled contact while on their travels. About 420 Australians were arrested overseas, and 168 were in prison. Almost 600 next-of-kin were given assistance concerning the disposal of remains of Australians who died while overseas.

Consular work can range from simply witnessing signatures on documents, through making enquiries on the whereabouts of a missing Australian, to visiting Australians in gaol. In extreme circumstances, Australian consular staff help Australians in war zones, with child abductions and with hijackings.

Consular services - our top priority

Those statistics will give you some idea of the demand for consular assistance that my Department meets each year, and with the number of Australians travelling overseas growing annually, requests for consular services are also likely to increase.

Since I became Foreign Minister in 1996, I have made the provision of consular services a top priority for my Department. This reflects the Government's belief that it has no more fundamental duty than the protection of Australian citizens overseas. Just last month, I paid an unannounced visit to consular officers in my Department and I was struck by their commitment and professionalism, often at times of great stress and anxiety for the families of Australians overseas. As I told my officers, their work is at the sharp end of our diplomacy and for many people is their only real contact with my Department or office. It is real and it is important work that Australia's consular officers do.

I believe that since coming to office, this Government has come a long way in providing the high quality consular service the Australian public expects. We have made some significant innovations in our work:

We keep our work focused on the changing international environment for Australian travellers, watching out for potential hazards. So it is, for example, that we (together with countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere) are looking closely at the consular aspects of the Y2K bug, to try and identify how Australians overseas might be affected by Year 2000 compliance problems, and how we can provide consular assistance to them during the period when the problem will be most acute.

For most, overseas travel is a rewarding and beneficial experience, but more and more travellers experience difficulties of a greater or lesser degree, be it loss of travel documents, visa problems, illness, accident, trouble with local authorities and sometimes civil unrest. Recent examples of the latter have included Indonesia, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia and some parts of Africa, where consular staff at embassies have worked hard to ensure the safety of Australians, and in some cases helped to evacuate them from danger spots. Australians also receive assistance from those countries which are our closest consular partners, and the Canadians are particularly helpful.

My Department continues to explore innovative ways in which consular services can be delivered to the Australian public including, of course, through educational campaigns. After all, although we stand ready to offer Australians the highest possible level of consular assistance, from everyone's point of view it would be best if there was never any need for our help to be sought. This is one line of business where the fewer customers we have, the better! The booklet we are launching today will play a vital role in that educative process. Hints for Australian Travellers - a pocketful of good advice.

The little brochure - Hints for Australian Travellers - would have crossed the paths of many Australians. It has been around since 1977, although earlier versions under different names have existed since 1971. Travellers would have received copies of it with their new passports. They may also have received a copy with their airline tickets, or have come across it elsewhere in travel agencies and bookshops. Our aim is to make it an essential travel companion to all Australians travelling abroad.

Many will have taken the time to look through it. Some may not have given it a second glance before they seized with glee on their passport or their tickets - and that would be a great pity. For within its pages can be found not only a host of handy hints and advice that would have made their journey much more pleasant, and may have saved them a phone call to the Australian Embassy seeking help, but also important and often essential advice about health and safety, narcotics, dual nationality and other specialist information to help travellers avoid trouble which may disrupt their travel plans.

The booklet covers the kinds of things people should do to prepare for their trip, including advice on medical, financial and insurance matters. And bearing in mind such cases as the family which had to pay $36,000 for their son's unexpected medical bills in a European country some time ago, I would like to take the opportunity to emphasise the essentiality for Australian travellers of taking out suitable insurance.

The booklet also tells travellers in which countries other governments can be approached for help. I wonder how many people know for example that Canadian representatives provide consular help to Australians in 17 countries. We also have 42 honorary consuls around the world who help to expand our network of assistance even further. And, of course, there are almost 100 Australian missions abroad.

The booklet provides a thorough array of useful consular information, including contact details for all our posts abroad. It gives practical tips on how to travel safely and avoid danger (though I'm not sure whether the section on getting married overseas falls into this category). And it also provides information on the return to Australia, such as quarantine and customs contact numbers.

Most importantly, it tells people what we as a Government can do for them if they get into trouble abroad, and what we can't. The cardinal rule for all travellers must be to respect the laws and customs of the country they are in - it is disappointing that, for a tiny minority of Australians, common sense and restraint seem to disappear as soon as backsides hit the seat of the 747. But they are, happily, a small minority.

Australian citizenship is a wonderful thing. But it is not a licence to act above the law, and certainly not a "get out of gaol free" card. We should always remember that laws of other countries can be vastly different from our own. Sometimes punishments can be very severe for offences which Australians might regard as minor. Just as we expect visitors to our country to abide by our laws, we Australians must act within the laws of other countries. If we don't, there are limits on what the Australian Government can do to assist. This booklet explains what those limits are, and what we can do for people if they do find themselves in trouble.

I would also draw attention to the eight consular brochures which we have displayed here today alongside the new copies of Hints. These provide a range of additional information for travellers, and among the most popular brochures have been those aimed at women travellers, backpackers and visitors to Bali. I would also highlight the brochure on dual nationality, because those Australians who may have dual nationality should be very aware of some of the problems they may encounter.

A new booklet - a new approach

Before I conclude my remarks, I want to say a little about the new approach we have taken in publishing this edition of Hints for Australian Travellers.

This is a completely revised and improved edition of the booklet, the first to be published commercially, by the company Brown and Wilton. The publishers have helped us recoup printing costs by an active campaign to win advertisers for the booklet. We have found also that a large number of advertisers have actually purchased copies of the booklet at cost price, for free distribution to their own customers.

The booklet is issued free to people who obtain a new Australian passport. It will also be available for sale in AusInfo bookshops, at a very low recommended retail price of $1.20 (may I say, the best value for money around).

Brown and Wilson have done a tremendous job in helping us publish this new edition of Hints, and I'd like now to acknowledge that support. This has been a departure from the old way of producing the booklet, but a good example of how commercial involvement can both reduce costs to Government, and increase quality for the consumer.

I should also place on record our appreciation of the cooperation of those companies (the Commonwealth Bank, Panasonic, TMVC, Optus, Unidial, Thomas Cook, Hertz, Youth Hostels of Australia, Telstra, Lonely Planet, American Express, and the Australian Duty Free Association) for placing their advertisements in Hints.

Please take the Hint

Our Government is committed to raising the level and quality of protection and assistance for Australians overseas. The publication of the 1998 edition of Hints for Australian Travellers is a concrete demonstration of that commitment.

Close attention to the advice included in this booklet could save Australians from injury, or embarrassment, or much worse. And if, despite, all precautions, they do find themselves in difficulties, staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia and at all our posts overseas stand ready to assist. As I said earlier, we hope there is no need for us to help but if there is, we always have someone ready to take your call.

People like to travel light, but remember that this little booklet contains the advice and resources of the Australian Government's consular service. Pound for pound, it's your best guarantee of a relaxed and trouble-free holiday. So this, then, is my message to all Australians who are thinking of travelling overseas - take the Hint!

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