The scenes from Australia filling up television news programs and social media newsfeeds are devastating. Tens of millions of acres charred beyond recognition by brush fires. Homes, hotels and seaside communities wiped out. Millions of animals, and dozens of human lives lost.
While recent rains have helped firefighters battle the months-long blazes raging through Australia, travel advisors who specialize in the destination have been trying to balance their attention to their business and their lives in North America, with the pain in their hearts.
Like April of last year, when fire badly damaged Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, events like the Australia brush fires have a tendency to impact travel advisors with strong connections to a destination.
“I am deeply saddened and nearly brought to tears each day as the updates come across my newsfeed,” said Lisa Wood Rossmeissl, owner of Boomerang Escapes, in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and a certified Aussie Specialist. “Australia has been a love of mine since I was a child and my visiting her completely changed my life. I do what I do today and am where I am because of Australia.”
“I have such an admiration for the people, animals and culture of Australia, that it breaks my heart to see and hear what the fires have done,” said Skip Neal, co-owner of Your Gallivanting Guru, in Austin, Texas, and a Premier Aussie Specialist. “I’m a big animal lover, so the loss of life, the kangaroos, koalas, etc., is the most disturbing issue for me. I can’t imagine what it is like for them to be surrounded by the fires and have nowhere to go for safety,” he said.
Helping where they can
While the images and news can be paralyzing at times, Wood Rossmeissl and Neal aren’t letting the pain prevent them from taking action. Neal has been promoting the need for veterinarian volunteers through his social newsfeed and other channels.
Wood Rossmeissl has been raising funds for different animal sanctuaries. “I have always been a supporter of Australia, since Boomerang Escapes opened her doors, providing donations for the Save the Koala foundation where I adopt koalas to care for them, and the Koala Clancy Foundation which helps koalas in the wild,” she said. “I also have been a ‘wombassador’ for the past three years, supporting the lives of wombats at Sleep Burrows Wombat Sanctuary.
“Since the fires, I have been using my Australia Travel Expert page to keep up posts for donations and have done a personal video plea for help on my weekly ‘Why Australia’ Sunday video show.”
Advisors staying on top of tourism impacts
The fires have devastated some of Australia’s key tourism destinations, including East Gippsland in Victoria and the New South Wales south coast. The Kosciuszko National Park Selwyn Snow Resort suffered extensive damage from the Dunns Road fire in the early part of January.
And then there are other knock-on effects that could impact the Australian tourism industry, especially independent firms that operate small excursion companies and lesser known hotels that are not a part of the major chains.
The financial cost for the tourism industry along Australia’s Eastern Coast will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, local experts say. For example, insurance premiums are likely to rise as insurance companies need to pay out for damages.
Neal uses Australia Tourism Board updates to view detailed maps, “that are extremely helpful not only to me, but I can also forward to clients and or potential clients.”
He also has been updated with several letters from the president of Travel 2, his preferred wholesaler for the area. “It’s a balance of reality, given the lack of news media coverage of how much of Australia is not damaged,” he said.
In addition, Travel 2 BDM Ward Reid has offered to speak with any of Neal’s current clients to assist him with getting accurate updates “directly from the horse’s mouth, which is extremely valuable to me, as well.”
Wood Rossmeissl is in constant contact with friends and travel colleagues in Australia. She follows Australia Tourism on Facebook and LinkedIn, but most of her “on the ground updates” are coming from her preferred land suppliers and tour operators.
“I am getting emails and posts regularly with updates and ways people can help, as well as any changes to current travelers. I am also hearing from my friends who live there or who have family there,” she said.
During the holidays just past, a tour for one client had “some minor adjustments,” she said. “I have had my future trips ask if there is any concern, but at this point, it is too early to look past a week ahead, as conditions can change so quickly good or bad. I am also getting new requests for those still ready to travel.”
Just last year, one of Neal’s best clients spent part of their honeymoon at the Southern Ocean Lodge, located on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. The 21-suite luxury resort has since been completely lost to fires. (All guests and staff were safely evacuated.)
“I don’t have anyone there now, but it has had an effect on my business. I had one couple that was scheduled to go in February to do a self-drive on the Great Ocean Road, but luckily, they didn’t cancel. We have just changed their travel dates to May,” he said.
Booking clients to visit is a great way to help
And like in other devastating natural disasters, travel can eventually help a country recover, bringing much-needed tourist spending to a destination that will one day get back to normal.
“The best thing Americans can do is make their trips and book new ones,” said Wood Rossmeissl. “Any time a destination with a large tourist economy suffers from Mother Nature, it is not time to stop seeing it, but the time to see it. This country is large and there are so many places that have not been touched, and the best thing is to keep their economy boosted so healing can be supplied to the areas in need.”
“I would like to see people still wanting to travel there,” Neal said. “The major tourist areas are not affected at all. But at the same time, the media coverage is making it seem like the whole country is on fire and burning down, and that is probably going to make folks less inclined. Hopefully I can do a great job of educating people otherwise.”
Neal had a family of seven booked to visit Australia at the end of May, who decided to cancel in full. The cancellation represented a $36,000 sale.
Marguerite McMahon, an Australian travel advisor based out of Gold Coast, Queensland, south of Brisbane, is reminding her followers on social media how vast Australia is, and how much of the country is untouched by the devastation.
Australians are going about their lives, spending money, and even traveling, she said when reached via email this week, noting how her pilgrimage journey to Jordan and Israel, scheduled for this September, is already half booked and deposited.
Wood Rossmeissl said “it’s hard to say at this point” what impact the fires will have on her sales, “but I have already had new requests come in for the destination. I will continue to stress how much is still viable and it is not the time to abandon your plans.”
She will represent Australia later this month at their booth at the New York Times Travel Show. “I will continue to use what channels I have to let people know there is nothing like Australia and to make those travel plans.”
In her email, McMahon included a link to the poem, “My Country,” by Dorothy MacKellar, to try to explain the Australian people’s spirit, one she hopes North Americans can come to understand, and want to visit her country one day. The poem ends with this verse:
“An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand
Though Earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.”
McMahon said, “We are a hardy bunch here.”