TORONTO — The Australian bushfire season had already started when Joe Pickerill booked his flight to the country, but he had hoped things would have settled down by New Year’s Eve when he was set to arrive.
Instead, the fires intensified and the death toll mounted, while some families were forced to take refuge on beaches as the sky glowed in an eerie red haze.
Pickerill wondered if he should cancel his trip, but friends in the country assured him that the cities and places he had planned to visit were safe.
So, like most people with trips planned to Australia, including athletes currently qualifying for next week’s Australian Open in Melbourne, he went anyway.
“I had just finished four or five years of a job where my best holiday was an extended long weekend, so I had looked forward to… getting as far away as I could from Ottawa winter,” Pickerill said, speaking from Sydney.
He said he’s still walking out and about all day, but that he does feel some effects from the haze by the end.
“If I’m out all day, by the end of the day I do notice my nose is running or my eyes are watering.”
Canadian tour operators who specialize in the region say that despite some complications, they haven’t had any cancellations because of the intense wildfire season that has so far killed at least 27 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes, and burnt an area almost the size of the island of Newfoundland.
“There’s so many areas that are not affected, where people can still experience the Australian hospitality and whatnot,” said Lise Knowles at Ottawa-based Aussie Travel.
“It is devastating for sure, but some of the tour operator and suppliers are pretty well begging please don’t cancel.”
Knowles said that rather than cancelling, some have postponed their trip, while most travellers have been able to stick with their existing plans, especially if it’s focused around the major cities.
“For now it’s just a matter of reworking some of the itineraries, and avoiding the danger zone or the fire zones.”
Dianne Hall at Edmonton-based GoWalkabout Travel Ltd. said that their clients haven’t had to change their trips, since the most destructive fires have been in areas that foreign tourists don’t visit as much.
“The area that the main bushfire is in is an Australian tourism area, it’s not an international tourism area. The area at the bottom of Australia is where we go as locals.”
She said that even in popular areas like Kangaroo Island near Adelaide, the effects are localized. The island lost some 40 per cent of its forest, but the east side where most of the tourists normally go wasn’t hit.
“We’re still open for business, we need the tourism,” she said.
Tourism Australia said in a statement that its sympathies go out to the families and communities impacted, while noting that tourism operators still need support.
“Whilst bushfires continue to impact parts of Australia, many areas are unaffected and most tourism businesses are still open. It is more important than ever that we rally around our communities and the tourism sector who may have been impacted.”
About 192,500 Canadians travelled to Australia for the year up to last September, up about 10 per cent from a year earlier. Overall, there were about 9.4 million visitors globally to Australia for the year, spending about $40 billion.
The Government of Canada notes in its travel advisory that air quality could have an impact on people with respiratory issues, and to exercise a high degree of caution in areas affected by bushfires.
Hall said that people with respiratory issues might want to bring a mask, but that the air quality situation, along with the fires themselves, can change rapidly.
“It’s a very fluid thing…a real watch and see,” she said.
Pickerill said that while he’s getting along fine, the destruction going on in the country is disheartening.
“I do love Australia, it’s not my first time here. So it’s nice to be back. It is at the same time, really unfortunate… you’re on vacation in a place where, as the stories have been told, half a billion flora and fauna wiped out,” said Pickerill.
“It puts a little bit of a pall over it for sure. But I’m fine, it’s the folks out there that you think about.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 14, 2020.
Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press