Thank you for inviting me to speak at the AFTA Conference today.
As the head of the Consular Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am pleased to be involved in such a major travel industry forum. I bring with me the best wishes of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Alexander Downer, and the Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Bruce Billson.
The Government believes in the value of travel - to Australia and to Australians.
It is important for Australia as a nation and also enriching for Australians, that we have links with other peoples and other nations.
- travel adds to the fabric of relationships with our neighbours through greater understanding
- people to people links - an often used phrase, but not simply rhetorical - the value of these is real - in a commercial sense, in a political sense and in a cultural sense.
Australians are travelling in unprecedented numbers - passport applications received over the past 12 months have increased by 17%.
In terms of actual numbers - we have issued 1,000,000 passports in the past year. To keep up with this demand - on several occasions in May we were issuing more than 5,000 passports a day.
Quite predictably, there was a downturn in the number of Australians travelling after major events including September 11, the Bali bombings and the SARS outbreak. But, the catch-up is happening now and we are expecting it will continue through to November this year, when the catch-up period will be complete.
Promisingly, Australians are not just travelling in significant numbers. There is strong evidence they are better informed and being much smarter travellers, which is what we are about. For example, the smartraveller website is getting an average of 160,000 page views per week, which is an excellent indication that more travellers are accessing our travel advice.
Of course, we all want to encourage travel which is both safe and responsible - one of the core responsibilities of government is to share with the travelling public clear, credible information about risks.
I know the travel industry is also interested in promoting 'safe' travel. It makes good business sense because happy, safe travellers are more likely to be frequent travellers.
Unfortunately though, not all Australian travellers enjoy trouble free overseas visits.
Each year Australians make around 3.5 million trips overseas and the Department handles over 15,000 serious consular cases. This figure includes over 700 hospitalisations, 600 deaths and 100 evacuations of Australians to another location for medical purposes.
We have a network of staff in embassies and consulates across the world who respond to Australians in difficulty. This network is assisted by a team of officers in DFAT's Canberra office, which includes a 24 hour consular emergency centre.
Against a backdrop of 3.5 million trips a year, the number of consular cases might not seem that large. But even one Australian in difficulty is one too many and we are always looking for ways to reduce this number, particularly through the information we provide in our travel advisories.
Contemporary international environment presents security and safety concerns that until September 11 were unknown to current generations of Australians - international terrorism today is pervasive in a way which previous, often localised terrorist acts were not.
If you are in the travel industry today and do not appreciate this - then you are in denial. Of course, it is important to keep these risks in perspective; including by comparing them to the risks we face every day in life in Australia.
Part of the job of my division in the Department is to help Australians understand this new international dynamic. A significant part of our work is at the preventative end of scale: we want to see fewer Australians needing assistance and more Australians having fun, safe and successful business and holiday trips.
Our key objective is to see all Australian travellers being well-informed, responsible 'smart' travellers. The primary way in which Australians can be well-informed about risk is by accessing the Department's travel advisories.
We are not in the business of providing promotional travel information - that's your job.
PREPARATION OF TRAVEL ADVISORIES
As partners with us on the promotion of travel advisories, it might be helpful to give you a broad overview of how travel advisories are put together.
In preparing travel advisories DFAT draws on:
- assessments from Australian missions overseas about the security conditions in which they operate
- our experience of the common or recurring consular problems Australians are experiencing overseas
- Intelligence reports and in particular ASIO threat assessments
- the advisories prepared by our consular partners (US, UK, New Zealand and Canada) although we may reach different conclusions.
Travel advisories are under constant review and remain current on every day, not just the day after reissue.
TRAVEL ADVISORY MYTHS
I would like to take this opportunity to try and dispel some frequent misconceptions about travel advisories.
Firstly , our travel advisories are just that: advice.
They are not just about terrorism. In addition to information about security, they provide useful, practical tips on travelling such as on health, visa and local law and customs information.
Secondly , travel advisories are about one thing only: helping Australians to make informed decisions about travel
- They are not about banning travel
- They are not about undermining the interests of the travel industry.
- They are not influenced by commercial or political considerations.
Thirdly , contrary to what you may have heard in some media reporting, in the issuing of travel advice there is no "singling out" of countries.
DFAT maintains a travel advice,not travel warning on most countries that are popular destinations for Australians in all regions of the world.
For example, if you log on to the Department's smartraveller site you will see that there are advisories for more than 140 destinations. And, at present there are only six countries for which the Department is advising against all travel.
There are also travel advisories for a number of countries where the security risk is low but where there is a high volume of travel by Australians, such as New Zealand.
We are conscious that it is important to keep our travel advice in perspective. And, we are progressively trying to make our language even clearer - particularly at the lower end of the scale, and including by reference to the sort of risks that Australians might face here.
Fourthly , travel advisories are kept under constant review but as a matter of course every travel advice is reissued and reassessed every quarter. Obviously, if developments in a country require more regular updates we will respond through the travel advice. The travel industry needs to be clear about the regular review process.
Fifthly, and even more importantly, travel advisories do not lose their credibility just because a terrorist attack or a security risk, that we have brought to the attention of travellers, does not materialise.
There are many reasons why planned or intended terrorist attacks do not eventuate.
Some in the media misunderstand our travel advisory settings and I should add here that it is important to look at the advice itself - not the media interpretation of it.
Our experience is that travel advice is better understood by the general public than is sometimes thought. Most Australians realise that decisions about whether or not to travel is one for the individual traveller to make. Australians need to make their own choices on the basis of their own priorities, family situation etc.
When our travel advice recommends defer non-essential travel and Australians ask us whether they should travel - the decision about what constitutes essential travel is one for the individual to make.
We hear criticism from time to time that our advice does not assist the traveller in the practical management of risk; that the information we share about a threat is vague and generic in nature. That's because the information we see is often precisely that.
As you can imagine, it is extremely rare that a terrorist organisation conducts itself in such a way that Governments get access to the precision of their planning. Our information can be credible - that is, we know with good authority that something may be being planned in a region, but not specific. Rest assured that where we do have specific credible information that detail will be in the travel advice and we will move heaven and earth to bring it to the attention of Australians.
Where the threat is more generalised we will seek to ensure it is conveyed as accurately as possible to help travellers make their own informed decisions about risks.
Which brings me to my sixth point - there is no secret advice, the Department produces only one form of advice in the form of the travel advisories. An important principle behind our work is that the advice we provide to the Australian public is exactly the advice we provide to our own staff, to other government agencies or to the private sector. There are no double standards.
EVOLVING TRAVEL ADVISORIES
It is also important to note that travel advisories are:
- a very recent thing: they go back to about 1997 in their current recognisable form
- an evolving field of work
- not an exact science.
Like partner consular services (UK, US, Canada, New Zealand), we see travel advice as an evolving product, shaped by a range of issues including feedback from the travel industry and the travelling public.
We are always open to ways we can improve them, strengthen them and make them clearer to the travelling public.
We have made a practice of reviewing the presentation, format and general approach to travel advice on a regular basis.
The Government is very mindful of the need to ensure that advice remains credible in the public mind.
And, we are continually looking to improve the clarity of travel advice. In response to the feedback we have received from the travelling public and travel industry, we, in consultation with staff in our posts, are implementing a range of changes to travel advisories.
In particular, we are making the travel advisories clearer through introducing new sub-headings to differentiate safety and security threats, putting them in plainer English and introducing other textual changes.
It is also important to the ongoing credibility of travel advice that risks are kept in perspective. We are currently working to make it clearer in advisories for lower risk countries that the behaviour we recommend equates to that which is practised in Australia.
Of course, there is not much point in the Department preparing these travel advisories if they are not known about or accessed.
The Department significantly improved the dissemination of travel advisories last year by launching the $9.7 million public information campaign, smartraveller.
The smartraveller campaign has a simple but vital message for all Australians - it is in your interest to consult the Department's travel advisories before going overseas.
This smartraveller message has been carried in smartraveller advertisements that you may have seen on television and in magazines and newspapers over the past year. During the past fortnight, you might have also heard some smartraveller radio advertisements featuring Ernie Dingo.
If you have been overseas recently, hopefully you have seen and perhaps even trialled the smartraveller kiosks located at the Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Darwin International Airports and at the Sydney and Canberra Passport Officers. These kiosks provide Australians with direct access to the smartraveller website, so they can print out the latest travel advice before departure.
As part of the smartraveller campaign we are keen to work even more closely with you = the travel industry to promote awareness and use of travel advisories.
PARTNERSHIPS WITH BUSINESS
Of course the unique partnership between the Government and the travel industry through the Charter for Safe Travel is an excellent way to advance our shared commitment to assisting Australians overseas travel safely. Cooperation between us is a world-first. Under the Charter, jointly launched by Mr Downer and AFTA Chief Executive Mike Hatton in June 2003, the travel industry is encouraging individuals to consult travel advice, and to take out appropriate travel insurance.
We currently have 1150 companies - travel agencies, airline, tour operators - as Charter for Safe Travel partners. Importantly, AFTA has made partnership with the Charter a condition of their membership. This membership shows our shared commitment to provide travellers with travel advice.
I would like to particularly acknowledge the excellent support we have received from Mike Hatton (Chief Executive, AFTA).
The Charter demonstrates a joint awareness that simple checks and preparations can minimise the risks for travellers and maximise the chances of a hassle-free journey.
A recent joint DFAT-AFTA survey of partners to the Charter has shown that travel agents are taking their membership of the Charter seriously as:
70% of respondents have increased their efforts to bring travel advisories to the attention of their customers, since becoming members.
The survey also established that:
Over 80% of respondents found the information within travel advisories on safety and security, local law and customs, entry and exit requirements, health issues, travel and health insurance, and consular assistance and registration to be either 'very useful' or 'useful'.
We know that a lot of travel agencies are going to the trouble of printing out travel advice for their customers, or have placed a line promoting the smartraveller website at the bottom of their itineraries. We appreciate this support.
I also commend those organisations and agencies that have allowed us to supply editorial on the smartraveller campaign in their publications and who have linked to smartraveller from their website. Again, the Department really appreciates your commitment.
For those of you who are not members of the Charter - we strongly urge you to sign on. This is very easy to do (it can be done through our smartraveller website) and it is good way of reassuring travellers of your safe travel status.
I would also like to inform you of a further recent initiative taken by the Department as part of the smartraveller campaign to enhance cooperation with industry. We have established a "Smartraveller Consultative Group" made up of representative industry bodies (such as AFTA) and the Government.
The purpose of the group is to provide a forum for advancing the aims of the Charter for Safe Travel, enable the travel industry to offer suggestions on improving the presentation, format and clarity of travel advice, and offer advice on the reach of key smartraveller messages.
As you will appreciate, it is not a forum for influence over the Government's treatment of risk, which remains our responsibility alone.
All these initiatives provide a strong foundation for further close cooperation with business operators and government in a way that benefits the travelling public. They will undoubtedly be taken into account by the Government in considering its response to a recent recommendation about taking this cooperation on travel advisories further.
The recommendation from the Bali Inquiry to establish a Code of Conduct outlining mandatory practices by agents in relation to travel advisories will be considered by the Government in coming weeks and of course, as also recommended by the Inquiry, will involve close consultation with industry.
Our joint efforts in this area do appear to be having an impact. In addition to the joint DFAT/AFTA survey I referred to earlier we have been carefully monitoring public feedback about travel advice, including through independent research work conducted as part of the smartraveller initiative.
The results present a positive picture and demonstrate that the smartraveller campaign and the relationships we have developed with industry are motivating more and more Australians to access travel advice before they travel.
For example , an unprecedented number of Australians are accessing our advice on the internet:
- we are averaging 160,000 smartraveller page views a week
- we currently have 46,000 email subscribers to our travel advice
And, our call centre is averaging just under 3000 calls a month.
Prior to the commencement of the smartraveller campaign, only 37% of the general community were aware of the DFAT website, while this figure has increased to 60% amongst the general community and to 80% for departing travellers a year on in the campaign.
In conclusion let me say that, in spite of the troubles or perceived troubles around us that Australians remain keen travellers
The anecdotal evidence of the hardy Australian travelling spirit is backed up by the fact that DFAT is issuing record numbers of passports.
I strongly believe, the Government and tourism industry can work together to promote tourism without compromising the security and safety of Australians overseas.
While it is wonderful peace of mind for travellers and their families that there is a world-class consular support service on hand to help all Australian travellers - we should continue our joint efforts to help Australians avoid these pitfalls.
We want Australian travellers to be 'smart', responsible informed travellers.
Together we can ensure they are.