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Bushfire travel refunds: What the law says

Bushfires have left Australia ravaged. Image: Getty

Australia’s catastrophic bushfires have left millions of hectares of land razed and prompted the US to raise the travel warning level. 

Tourist hotspot, South Australia’s Kangaroo Island has also issued a warning against travellers heading to the western region of the island. 

The wildlife haven has also seen major property losses, with the Southern Ocean Lodge Australia suffering serious damage. 

The luxury lodge was named Conde Nast Traveller’s top resort in 2019 thanks to its sweeping views, but is now listed as closed with no date set for it to reopen. 

Hordes of Christmas holidaymakers were also forced to amend their trips, faced with warnings against entering bushfire-stricken towns and towns at risk of the blazes. 

Others still were left stuck, as real estate agents’ policies contradicted with official RFS warnings.

One traveller, who goes by Suz, was due to travel to Erowal Bay in NSW’s south in early January but the RFS warned that holidaymakers would need to leave within days due to the threat. 

“Real estate says it’s fine but #RFSNSW advice is for tourists to leave the south coast ahead of worsening conditions this weekend - what to do?” she questioned on Twitter. 

“They’ve now postponed us ‘til Monday, seems some sense has been seen.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called on holidaymakers to postpone travel, rather than ask for a refund, if possible. 

“If you’re in a position to do so, then why not even let them keep it or, indeed, arrange for another time when you can take it up and come back and visit, whether it’s Kangaroo Island or anywhere else,” Morrison said last week. 

“If you booked accommodation and you’re now seeking a refund, can you cut them a break?

“These businesses have been hit very hard and their cashflow positions are not going to be in a position where they’re going to be able to meet every request.”

What does Fair Trading say? 

Under Australian Consumer Law, if your travel plans were impacted by bushfires, you may be eligible for a partial or full refund. 

“The conditions created by the current bushfires may result in some guests postponing or cancelling holiday plans, accommodation and tours but some may have rights to a refund,” Fair Trading’s website reads.

“However each situation is different so in the first instance you should speak to the accommodation or service provider to check the cancellation policy supplied at the time of booking or on the business’s website.”

It said that regardless of whether the traveller had booked a camping spot, Airbnb, hotel or through a real estate agent, businesses may be entitled to charge for any reasonable expenses incurred before the traveller cancelled due to the emergency. 

Additionally, travellers aren’t entitled to a refund due to poor weather. 

Under the law, travellers who cancel due to destroyed accommodation, closed roads or authorities’ safety warnings are entitled to a refund of payments already made, while the company is entitled to charge for any expenses already incurred. 

What about flights?

Several carriers were forced to cancel services last week as smoke made landing hazardous in areas like Albury, Merimbula, Cooma and Port Macquarie.

Virgin Australia said it would waive change fees and refund tickets, while Qantas flights were unaffected by the blazes. However, it said travellers should stay up to date with their flight status.

Rex Express - which services several regional routes - said refunds and credits would be extended to travellers.

A $1.3 billion tourism risk

While the prime minister has said large parts of the country are still open for business, and the US’ travel warning has now been downgraded, economists have warned that tourism losses could be worth billions of dollars. 

“We estimate that a 10 per cent reduction in tourism for impacted regions could be worth $1.3 billion,” UBS economists George Tharenou, Carlos Cacho and Jim Xu wrote in a briefing note on Thursday. 

The economists also predicted lower tourism numbers could contribute to a 0.2 per cent GDP hit. 

The Australian Tourism Industry Council executive director, Simon Westaway, has also put potential losses from the bushfire crisis in the  hundreds of millions of dollars

“The summer school holiday period [from December - January] is the high peak season for many of our regional and rural tourism hotspots,” he told The Guardian

“It is still too early to fully know and assess the commercial impact but it will clearly run into hundreds of millions of dollars over the near term.”

Is it time to rethink our holiday period? 

As Australia’s bushfire seasons become more intense, researchers are questioning whether Australia needs to shift its holiday season. 

“Perhaps it’s time to rearrange Australian calendar and reschedule the peak holiday period to March or April, instead of December and January,” professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, David Bowman, wrote in a piece for The Conversation. 

“Scheduling the major Australian holiday at the same time as bushfire season ... makes things extremely difficult for the enterprises that depend on the holiday trade. You need certainty to run a business and timing the major annual Australian holiday period with bushfire season strips certainty away from these business owners,” Bowman noted. 

And, it makes it harder for holidaymakers desperate for a break. 

“Instead of returning to work rested and re-energised, many will be stressed, tired, perhaps even traumatised.”

A poll of Yahoo Finance readers found that 72 per cent agreed Australians need to stop holidaying in national parks during fire season. 

  • Have your travel plans been affected by the bushfires? Get in touch here.

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