As the raging bushfires that have plagued Australia since September continue with no clear end in sight, travel agents and their clients are understandably worried about what to do next. The constantly changing situation has led to widespread uncertainty about what destinations are safe to visit, and which are dangerous, either from the fires or the air quality.
Jasmine Folden, Founder of Folden-Diaz, a California-based luxury travel agency, and affiliate of CADENCE, a Virtuoso Agency, is currently dealing with the stress of monitoring the ongoing crisis for her clients that are currently in Australia, as well as staying abreast of the issue for her client’s pending trips to the region.
Currently, she has a family of five vacationing in Australia, and has been working around the clock to accommodate them amid the constantly changing situation plaguing the continent.
Addressing Client concerns
One of her clients has been keeping abreast of the situation while abroad, and was wondering what aspects of their itinerary would have to change. “So we started calling all of the places on the itinerary and became aware of the severity of the fires.” She contacted every destination on the itinerary and was forced to stay on top of the ever-changing situation. One destination reassured her “‘we’re going to be fine, the winds changed, everything is fine’” and then boom, just days later, they’re closed. We had to relocate and find a new place for him to be and at that time we were only about a week into the month-long trip.”
Before looking into the problem in depth, “I really didn’t understand how many fires there were, and how limited our options started to become, because all these other guests needed to be reprotected and relocated, so a huge percentage of availability was already taken up.”
She also has other pending trips to the region, and her clients are understandably concerned.
“Now there’s a client asking me ‘should I go? Is it safe? Does my insurance cover me if I don’t go?’ and it’s a group of about 12 people.”
Although she likes to remain neutral when organizing trips for her guests, and she never want to put them in a position where they’d feel unsafe, she does say that for those who want to help Australia through the crisis, vacationing and spending your travel dollars in the area will go a long way towards helping the region.
“It’s important to support tourism [in the region]. When asked about how to help, my response has been pretty uniform across the board. When you go to a destination, you support the people, and right now they need it. They need the money, you should go, definitely,” said Folden.
“I would never send anybody anywhere unsafe, so I tell everyone to look at the most current news. I try to default to what the government is saying and what the travel advisories are saying. Then I encourage people, if it is safe, to think about supporting the people there on the ground level.”
Staying on top of the situation
Tracking the fire’s progress has been a difficult task, “[up-to-date news] hasn’t really been widely publicized, so I really had to go to Australian news outlets to try to find information, and also try to constantly call the properties.”
“This has been very interesting for us, because one day everything is fine, and then the wind changes, the fires move and the whole scenario changes.”
Contacting and organizing an emergency response for her clients has represented a new type of challenge for her agency. “It’s way different deal than being a travel agent.”
It’s been a busy few weeks for her agency. “I didn’t sleep right for like four days, because Australia is on a completely different time zone, and my client is texting us in the middle of the night and we’re like literally running around trying to find a place for him.”
“We spend immense amounts of time trying to protect people, and the loss of commissions has been a big impact. I honestly don’t even know what the dollars and cents will shake down to, but I know that the amount of time it takes away from planning for other clients has been impactful.”
Advice for agents
She advises other agents who may be in a similar position as her, to recommend the appropriate travel insurance, and to always have a plan B. “Melbourne and Sydney are my top concerns, because I know that there were fires around the city, and I’m not a hundred percent sure about its containment, but I’m worried about the air quality.”
Travel advisors really have to balance their fear with what’s best for clients and the destination as a whole. “There are some places that are trying to operate as normal, though I don’t even know how that’s possible.”
Though this is far from the first ecological disaster she’s had to deal with on behalf of her clients, it is by far the worst and most far reaching.
“I live in Florida, so I’ve seen lots of hurricanes and odd weather patterns come through here…but obviously there’s been nothing like this. We’re literally shuffling a family from spot to spot on a continental level. Truly it’s difficult to fathom the sheer scale of it.”
Contributing to the Solution
In the wake of the ongoing disaster, Folden is taking a more serious look at how the role of climate change has contributed to the issue, and how her agency can work to offset those effects. “I don’t yet know how I can change my business to support climate activism more. I charter private jets, and I sell airline tickets and I sometimes sell cruises, and those are huge aspects of the machine that are not working.”
“This has made me think is there something I could be doing, or should be doing to be helpful, or maybe even neutralizing some of what my industry contributes to.
“I’ve looked at carbon offsetting, and I’ve thought about a percentage of our sales going to carbon offsetting. That’s the conversation that has been going through my mind, how can I be part of the change in my industry.”
For up-to-date information on what areas have been affected by the fires, visit the Australian Tourism Website.
And for those interested in donating to the local fire departments’ efforts to contain the blazes, you can donate directly to the state fire authority in both Victoria and New South Wales, two of the states hardest hit by the fires. To donate visit the Victoria fire department’s website, and the New South Wales fire department website.