Travellers warned following spike in missing persons cases

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is warning Australians heading overseas to leave information about their travel plans with family and friends in the wake of a spike in missings persons cases.

A report on consular activities released on Thursday, found a 20 per cent increase in "routine whereabouts inquiries" to DFAT officials between 2015-16 and 2016-17, with 695 cases in total. This doesn't include cases where Australians are caught up in international emergencies, such as the attempted coup in Turkey or the terrorist attack in Nice.

The top countries for missing persons inquiries were Thailand, which experienced a 74 per cent spike in cases, the United States (up 26 per cent), Indonesia (up 8 per cent), China (down 52 per cent) and Philippines (down 18 per cent).

"Unexpectedly losing contact with a family member or friend who is travelling overseas can be very distressing," the report says, before stressing there are "legal and practical limits" to what Australian diplomats can do to help.

DFAT says travellers can "do much" to stop loved ones worrying, by leaving copies of their itinerary, passport, contact and insurance details with people at home and maintaining regular contact.

The advice to family members who have concerns is to try and get in touch by "all possible means", which includes via phone, email and social media and trying to reach travellers through a last address, friends, banks, travel agents, airlines and employers.

If this doesn't work, DFAT says they should contact the department's emergency line, but cautions searches for missing persons are the responsibility of local authorities.

Australians took more than 10 million overseas trips in 2016-17 - a number that has grown by about 5 per cent a year over the past five years. About one in a thousand Australians who are overseas at any given point during the year need DFAT's help.

In 2016-17, DFAT helped more than 1600 Australians who were arrested overseas, 1700 who were hospitalised, 773 victims of theft and 317 victims of assault.

Releasing the report, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stressed that Australians should be as "self-reliant as possible" when travelling overseas. This includes taking out adequate insurance, having up-to-date vaccinations and talking to their doctor about managing pre-existing medical conditions.

A DFAT-commissioned survey recently found that most travellers don't understand their insurance coverage.

Almost 90 per cent of respondents were not sure about which countries their insurance covered (for example, some policies cover Bali but not the rest of Indonesia), while 87 per cent didn't know if they were covered for riding a motorcycle overseas (most policies will not cover you if you don't have a valid motorcycle licence or are not wearing a helmet).

More than 80 per cent were uncertain about coverage of a mental health condition or claims where alcohol or drug use is involved.

"Appropriate insurance is essential," Ms Bishop said. "If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel."

The DFAT consular emergency centre can be reached on 1300 555 135 from within Australia and +61 2 6261 3305 from overseas

The story Travellers warned following spike in missing persons cases first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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