Why traveling to Australia could be the most effective way to help right now

Jan 10, 2020

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The size and scale of Australia’s bushfires are hard to comprehend. As of this week, more than 20.5 million acres have burned. That’s more than 10 times the number of acres burned in California’s 2018 and 2019 wildfire seasons combined, and larger than last year’s Amazon fires.

As the bushfire emergency continues, many Australians — myself included — are in shock about what’s happening to the country, and unfortunately, the effects are being felt far beyond the fire zones.

Concerned travelers around the world are canceling Australian vacation plans, which is hurting Australia even more.

What some international travelers don’t realize is just how big Australia really is. At almost 3 million square miles, it’s roughly the size of the U.S. mainland, which means a huge section of the country has not been affected by the fires and most tourism businesses are still open.

Related: Donate to help with Australia bushfire relief, and TPG will match your donation

All international airports are operating as normal and Tourism Australia’s travel alerts page provides updates on popular international destinations. The long list of areas that have not been affected by fires include Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and Whitsundays, the Hunter Valley and North Coast of New South Wales, Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island, and Western Australia’s Coral Coast.

Misleading maps and images including a “3D visualization” of the fires that was widely mistaken for a photo from the International Space Station and a photoshopped image of a girl in a mask holding a koala on a burning beach are only making matters worse. While those images are powerful commentary on what’s happening in Australia, they have also exacerbated the situation.

Tourism operators far beyond the reach of the fires are being asked if it’s still safe to come to their destinations.

Grant Hunt, CEO of Australian tourism company Voyages, says some international tourists are even asking if Uluru, which is both far from the fires and surrounded by desert, is out of harm’s way.

“While our sincerest sympathies remain with those communities [affected], it’s important for international visitors to understand that Australia is an incredibly vast land and 97% of key tourist destinations, such as Uluru, are unaffected by the bushfires.”

Unfortunately even some Australian tourists have been canceling trips because of fears around the fires.

The Blue Mountains. (Photo by Markus Gann/Shutterstock)
The Blue Mountains (Photo by Markus Gann/Shutterstock)

The Blue Mountains west of Sydney, for example, are almost deserted after confusion and misinformation has led to mass cancellations.

The Greater Blue Mountains area is around 2.5 million acres, and while it has experienced fires in the bushland, none have reached the townships in the main tourist area. Affected businesses include the Bilpin Springs Lodge, which has seen 100% of its bookings canceled. And local tour operator Botanica Touring is down 70%, with a range of tourism businesses forced to cut shifts and reduce permanent hours. Some companies are even considering letting employees go if things don’t change fast.

The usually popular beachside destination of Kiama is 90 minutes south of Sydney and hasn’t had a fire in the current crisis. But while January is normally their busiest month, it looks like this year’s trade will be significantly weakened, with at least one accommodation business down 50% from previous years due to cancellations.

Other communities around Australia are feeling a similar strain as local and international travelers change their vacation plans.

Related: Everything you need to know about Australia’s bushfires

Tourism’s role in Australia’s recovery

As the bushfires burn, the priority is always the safety of the community and visitors in those areas. But when the smoke clears and those communities try to recover, they’ll need as much support as they can get.

Kangaroo Island has been described as Australia’s Galápagos thanks to its reputation as a home for some of the country’s most endangered animals. The situation is still ongoing, but at the time of publication, bushfires have killed two people and devastated around a third of the island, including a large part of Flinders Chase National Park.

Kangaroo Island. (Photo by Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock)
Kangaroo Island. (Photo by Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock)

In response to the fires, people have been canceling bookings as far ahead as April and asking for refunds, which is putting a huge strain on the island.

Pierre Gregor, chairman of Kangaroo Island Tourism, Food, Wine and Beverage Association, said Kangaroo Island has the highest dependence on tourism of any region in South Australia and visitors are vital to the recovery process.

“Currently, there is a lot of hurt, both economic and psychological. But the fact remains that 70% of the island in terms of its tourism offerings is still there. The dynamic has changed, but you still have farm gates and cellar doors that are available, and around 250 kilometers of coastline.”

Gregor says most businesses on the island are “Mum and Dad” microbusinesses that only employ one or two people and rely on bookings in the peak period from November to April.

The Kangaroo Island fires also claimed Australia’s first luxury lodge. Guests and staff were evacuated from the award-winning Southern Ocean Lodge before fires swept through the area. The lodge was completely destroyed. Owners James and Hayley Baillie have committed to rebuilding and have already taken architect Max Pritchard to revisit the site, though it’s too soon to estimate a reopening date.

In Queensland, multiple bushfires in the World Heritage-listed Mount Barney National Park led to the closure of the park late last year. After seeing a 90% decline in bookings as far ahead as March, the owner of the Mount Barney Lodge, Innes Larkin, has created a sculpture trail to be illuminated at night in a bid to tempt visitors back.

Throughout the bushfire-affected zones, communities and businesses are facing their own challenges — and hoping people don’t abandon them in the most difficult of times.

Cruise on

Cruise lovers who’ve been looking forward to setting sail in Australia can rest assured that they’ll be in safe hands.

Australia’s major cities — and the majority of its coastline — remain open to visitors and most cruises are continuing exactly as scheduled.

A spokesperson for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says so far only five cruises have adjusted itineraries to avoid two affected areas, Eden on the NSW South Coast, and Kangaroo Island.

Cruise lines are keen to put safety first and so will take passengers to an alternative destination if there’s a chance of danger, and as soon as the time is right to return and support affected areas they will be back.

How to stay safe if you’re traveling to Australia

In my corner of New South Wales, we now live with the threat of fires. In November, my hometown of Glen Innes was one of the first places to make international news when two lives were lost as fires swept through the nearby villages of Wytaliba and Torrington.

Sea Cliff Bridge in New South Wales. (Photo by alexroch/Shutterstock)
Sea Cliff Bridge in New South Wales. (Photo by alexroch/Shutterstock)

Checking the Fires Near Me website and app has become a daily habit, and clouds on the horizon are now looked at twice to see if they’re innocent, or a disturbing sign of a new bushfire.

Keeping up to date with the latest information is crucial if you’re traveling into affected areas, and the following sites share bushfire information from different states and territories:

New South Wales

Victoria

Tasmania

Australian Capital Territory

Northern Territory

Queensland

South Australia

Western Australia, or www.dfes.wa.gov.au

Stephen Mahoney, acting CEO of Destination NSW, says with conditions constantly changing, it’s a challenging time for the state.

“Visitors to New South Wales are encouraged to maintain their travel plans and bookings over the summer period, but should be vigilant and seek the most up-to-date information prior to departure. Anyone traveling in NSW should follow the instruction and advice of authorities including: Rural Fire ServiceNational ParksNSW PoliceBureau of Meteorology and Live Traffic.”

Travelers visiting Australia should review all the information available before departure and while on the ground. If it isn’t safe to travel to your destination, see if you can reschedule (rather than cancel) so you can support communities in the months to come.

And a reminder: If you are in the area, make sure you avoid the fires. We hope this goes without saying, but putting yourself in a dangerous position will only tie up valuable firefighting resources. Leave the koala rescues to the experts.

Other ways you can help

There are a number or organizations helping victims who have lost their homes and farms, as well as those fighting the fires and the animals that have been injured and displaced.

The Saint Vincent de Paul Society has set up a special fundraiser for bushfire victims and those suffering in the drought, and the Red Cross is raising money to support victims — although donations may go to their general disaster relief and recovery fund rather than be set aside just for the bushfires.

Tasmania. (Photo by Visual Collective/Shutterstock)
Tasmania. (Photo by Visual Collective/Shutterstock)

To help with relief efforts, TPG has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the Australian Red Cross. The Red Cross is using the funds to send relief to communities affected by the fires and to provide support to those who were displaced. TPG will be matching all donations up to $10,000, and you can donate now by clicking the link below.

Comedian Celeste Barber’s fundraiser was initially raising money for The Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Services and Brigades Donations Fund, and started with a goal of $30,000. Now that she has raised close to $32.5 million, Barber says the money will be shared across the states and with the Red Cross and families of those killed in the fires, in consultation with the NSW RFS.

To help farmers, some of whom who have lost entire herds or crops in the fires, you can volunteer to help rebuild fences or donate money through BlazeAid.

Help rescue and treat animals who have been injured and displaced by donating to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which has launched appeals in VictoriaNSW and South Australia. The NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) and Wildlife Victoria are raising money to care for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife including koalas and kangaroos.

And you don’t have to be in Australia to support local businesses. Buy from the Bush started as an Instagram account sharing products to buy from rural communities facing drought. Since they started connecting small rural businesses with city shoppers, they’ve helped some bush businesses hold on through extremely difficult hard times.

Bottom line

No one knows what the immediate future holds for Australia, but we do know that locals are grateful for all the concern and support that has poured in from around the world. Just don’t believe that the whole country is off limits to travelers, especially at a time when your tourism dollars may be more important than ever.

Featured photo by Tero Hakala/Shutterstock.

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