Many New Zealanders head off on holiday without registering their travel plans on the SafeTravel website. Eveline Harvey talks to Mfat's Lyndal Walker about why they really should.
Kiwis are being urged to register their travel plans with New Zealand authorities before they head overseas so they can more easily be contacted in case of an emergency.
Recent terror attacks in Europe and Turkey — both popular destinations for New Zealand travellers — highlight the importance of registering your globetrotting intentions as soon as you book your holiday, says Lyndal Walker, consular divisional manager at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat).
Travellers can register via the ministry's SafeTravel website, which has recently been optimised for mobile devices. There's also a SafeTravel Facebook page where travellers can keep tabs on MFAT's latest travel advisories.
"It takes 10-15 minutes to register and that's if you are travelling as an individual or as a tour group," says Walker.
"If Kiwis are registered with us, that means if a major incident were to occur overseas, that we are able to contact them immediately ... it's usually the Kiwis that are registered with us that are contacted first by the ministry to confirm their safety and wellbeing."
She likens contacting travellers who haven't registered to finding "a needle in a haystack" and says not being able to get in touch with a loved one if the worst happens overseas can subject family and friends back home to an anxious wait.
Walker would like to see SafeTravel registration get to the point where it's second nature for those booking trips but says even if you've already headed away on holiday, it's not too late to plug your details into the system.
"We often do have a spike in registrations if a major event occurs, and that's fine, you can register anytime, anywhere."
I'm just popping off to the Pacific, do I really need to register?
Walker says most Kiwis do their homework before travelling overseas and are reasonably well-informed about the risks that may present themselves in various locations but a handful of naive travellers continue to think "it won't happen to us".
The reality is, travellers never know when or where they might require consular assistance.
During the last financial year, the ministry assisted just shy of 3000 New Zealanders with consular issues (lost or stolen passports, becoming a victim of crime etc.) and handled more than 48,000 general inquiries.
In addition, Walker notes: "We've had six major crises offshore in the last financial year that MFAT responded to in terms of locating Kiwis and confirming their wellbeing: the terrorism-related attacks in Bangkok, Paris, Jakarta, Brussels and Istanbul, and tropical cyclone Winston in Fiji.
"And this financial year we have started off with a roar and a hiss with the terrorist attack in Nice, the two in Turkey, the series of incidents in Germany ... and also we had a number of New Zealanders affected by the armed conflict in South Sudan."
"You can always guarantee there's always two Kiwis somewhere," she says. "We're here to help people help themselves."
What can I expect from Mfat if there's an incident while I'm travelling?
Currently, those registered with SafeTravel receive an email if anything occurs that may have an effect on their trip, providing them with relevant information and consular contact details.
Walker says a text-message service providing updates for travellers is due to be rolled out within the next two months.
How Mfat can help ... and how it can't
While New Zealanders can request consular assistance for a number of matters when travelling, they also need to take personal responsibility for their actions, says Walker.
"We don't interfere in the judicial process of another country, so we really encourage people travelling overseas to obey local laws and respect different cultural norms.
"What we may think is harmless fun in New Zealand maybe could result in a harsh penalty offshore. Being a Kiwi doesn't mean you get any special treatment.
She says travellers should always follow the advice of local authorities and steer clear of events that have the potential to quickly get out of control, like political protests.
"There's the risk of being arrested because you might have your camera out, or your recorder, and that could be misinterpreted by local authorities.
"[Mfat] is really there to facilitate communication between someone when they're in difficulty — between them and their family back in NZ. We're there to provide advice and assistance and also to help people if they have language difficulties or — if they're in hospital — to talk to people on their behalf."
In other words, if you need help with paying your hotel bill or medical expenses, Mfat won't be able to assist you.
Walker says she cannot stress enough how important it is for New Zealanders to take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover themselves in those sorts of situations.
"If you have a scooter accident in South East Asia, you may have to be Medivac'd back to New Zealand and it's a huge cost ... Medivacs can cost up to $100,000 even from the South Pacific."
What if I have dual citizenship or live overseas?
It's important to note you may not be entitled to New Zealand consular assistance if you're a dual citizen travelling in your other country of citizenship, or if you're travelling on a foreign passport.
"It all boils down to what passport you're travelling on," says Walker.
"If you're travelling on a New Zealand passport, you're entitled to New Zealand consular assistance."
A permanent resident of New Zealand travelling on a British passport, however, should look to the British authorities for consular assistance.
"You can't double-dip", says Walker, though she notes that in "crisis-type situations" countries do work together where possible.
That means all those Kiwis on their OEs should make sure they register their travels with SafeTravel too, regardless of where in the world they're currently living.
Be like E.T.
In addition to registering your travel plans, Walker says Kiwis should "be like E.T. and phone home".
She says despite the prevalence of social media these days, not everyone who finds themselves tangled up in an incident overseas thinks to make contact with those who may be worried about them back in New Zealand.
Whether it's via Facebook or simply a quick text message: "Don't forget to keep regularly in contact with your mum!" she advises.
What if I'm travelling with a school, sports or cultural group?
Walker says Mfat writes to schools and universities annually, reminding them of the importance of registering any overseas group trips on the SafeTravel website and encouraging them to do so.
"It's helpful for us to know that we have a school group in the area [if there's an incident] and their details so we can quickly hook into them and find out where they are and more importantly, are they okay?"