Although, by and large, government departments are clear that the role of their missions in foreign countries is not to provide a safety net for uninsured travellers or for those with inadequate cover, not all travellers realise that this is the case. The insurance industry works hard to target and educate such people in the hope of ensuring their needs are met if an unfortunate incident happens abroad and in order to maintain a good working relationship with consulates and embassies around the world.
Despite efforts by travel insurers and consulates, however, many travellers remain convinced that their country’s diplomatic representatives are there to deal with even the most trivial requests from holidaymakers. Among the 300,000 calls for assistance received by British diplomatic missions in 2019, for example, were included a complaint about inflight catering on an outbound flight from a traveller who wanted the embassy to arrange a flight home with another airline; a call asking an embassy staff member to retrieve a set of headphones left behind in a Paris hotel room; and a request to provide a television for a British patient in an Australian hospital.
Of course, embassies are called in to help with many more pressing or serious issues, and in many instances consulates and assistance providers work together to ensure travellers receive the help they need when they find themselves in a vulnerable situation. So, what are the mutual benefits of ensuring good relationships between embassies and the assistance industry, and what is being done to educate travellers about the importance of understanding what their consulate can and can’t do for them?
Let’s start by looking at some of the ways in which governments reach out to travellers and the role insurers play in enforcing their messages.
“We are committed to providing clear, timely, and reliable information to help travellers make informed decisions and travel safely,” stated a US State Department spokesperson. “We share information across a range of platforms and in many formats, so that US citizens have access to the safety and security information they need when living or travelling abroad. We recommend travellers research their destination before travelling abroad. We provide safety and security information for every country of the world to help citizens assess the risks of travel. Each country information page contains a travel advisory, alerts, and other important details specific to that country.
“We also recommend travellers do not travel without insurance. It is important for travellers to make sure their medical insurance covers expenses abroad and to consider purchasing supplemental insurance (including medical evacuation insurance, travel health insurance, and trip cancellation insurance) to cover potential emergency expenses.”
Other governments also continue their efforts to educate travellers about how they can help their diplomats to assist them in a real emergency. This can be as simple as encouraging travellers to keep embassies informed of travel itineraries.
Embassies and consulates are not always as co-operative and flexible as assistance providers might wish
“All travellers are encouraged before they depart to register their travel details with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT),” states the Australian government department on its Smartraveller website, which provides travel advisories and advice, as well as information about consular services for Australian travellers.
“DFAT is very proactive in explaining consular services through its Smartraveller website,” said Adrian Leach, CEO of World Travel Protection, a Cover-More company based in Australia. Cover-More customers have featured in DFAT’s Smartraveller promotional campaigns.
“Australian travellers appear to understand the role of travel insurance and who to contact in medical emergencies – they may contact us once they arrive at a hospital or medical facility or, in more remote areas, they’ll think to contact their travel insurance provider first before the consulate,” said Leach. Proof that such educational campaigns can work.
Like DFAT, the US State Department operates a Smart Traveler Enrolment Program and urges US travellers to file their planned itineraries before departure. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) operates a ‘Know Before You Go’ service online, partly aimed at explaining to travellers what help they can expect from UK embassies or consulates in case of emergency.
There’s more work to be done, though, it would seem. Scott J. Rosen, President and CEO of US-based international claims management company MDabroad, believes there is a need for travel insurers to continue trying to make it clear to insureds – and potential insureds – that their country’s diplomats are not there to provide a safety net for uninsured travellers.
Having strong relationships with local consulates can help expedite approval processes and times
“While we value our relationships with the various diplomatic entities, their priority is typically not to assist travellers in distress, and they can only educate patients as to the standard practices and local rules of engagement,” he told ITIJ. “Our 20 years of experience tell us that there is a lot of room for improvement here. Working with international patients, we run across many instances whereby the policy benefits are simply not sufficient to pay for the actual expenses or the service actually needed by the patient isn’t included in the policy.” Thus, consumer education around what a consulate or embassy can and cannot do for travellers goes hand in hand with explaining what their travel medical policy can and cannot do for them.
All hands on deck
When it comes to working together, the assistance industry and embassies all over the world have had a lot of practice. From helping travellers with minor issues to collaborating in the aftermath of large-scale terrorist incidents or natural disasters, assistance providers and consulates work together constantly – if not always consistently.
Most of the co-operation between diplomatic missions, assistance companies and insurers relates to more common occurrences such as lost passports, dealing with non-fatal and fatal accidents, and arranging the repatriation of the remains of insureds who have died abroad. British diplomatic representatives abroad, for example, provide what the FCO terms ‘serious consular assistance’ to around 17,000 people annually, including dealing with around 3,700 deaths, 3,250 hospitalisations, 5,000 arrests, and issuing around 27,000 emergency travel documents to replace lost and stolen passports.
The relationship between assistance providers and consulates is mutually beneficial, however. “Besides assistance with visas, we may receive requests from an embassy or consulate to help find the best possible health solution for an expat national who works in their area of responsibility,” explained Dr Deniz Aytan, Chief Medical Officer at Turkish assistance company Marm Assistance. “We also work with them [consular representatives] in times of national disaster and following terror attacks in cases where a foreigner is wounded or deceased. We assist the embassy or consulate with forensic reports, clearance documents, transport of mortal remains, meeting and greeting and accommodation for the family members who travel out to the incident site.”
Embassies are also likely to be the first resource for families if a relative goes missing while holidaying or resident abroad. When insureds go missing during a natural disaster, for example, insurers work closely with diplomatic representatives. The US State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Service will often reach out to travel insurers and assistance providers in such instances to help locate, assist or repatriate a missing insured, another spokesperson said.
When a number of parties are involved in working together towards a common goal, sharing out responsibilities and mapping out where those responsibilities lie is key. This isn’t so much of an issue when it comes to assistance providers and consulates working together, but differences in approaches to how the common goal might be achieved can cause friction in these particular working relationships.
According to some voices in the travel medical assistance sector, embassies and consulates are not always as co-operative and flexible as assistance providers might wish. Dr Aytan points out that for medevac operators, expediting paperwork is key, but that some embassies could do better in this regard. He admits to being ‘very frustrated’ at times when dealing with consular representatives. “For us, it is vital to work closely with embassies and consulates, but when we need them, we know to potentially expect a number of challenges,” he said.
The company mostly works with consulates to resolve visa issues; for example, when dealing with a complicated medevac case from a developing country. In such cases, time is, of course, of the essence, so when looking to urgently evacuate a patient or obtain visas for family members of a critically ill patient, problems with obtaining the visas in a timely manner can be stressful for all involved parties.
“Embassies and consulates are bureaucratic bodies. They never act in a ‘commercial’ way, which is understandable,” said Dr Aytan. “However, this slows down our operations and sometimes it may even cause cancellations that can jeopardise patients’ lives. When it comes to human health, everybody should be a little more flexible, understanding and capable of exercising empathy,” he said.
Time is also, understandably, critically important in cases of a death overseas. In most cases, relatives will expect repatriation or on-site internment of the deceased as soon as possible. This normally requires official determination of the cause of death. In some cases, depending on circumstances and location, this can be a time-consuming process, explained Fiona Greenwood, Operations Director at Rowland Brothers International, a UK-based international repatriation specialist.
Despite efforts by travel insurers and consulates, however, many travellers remain convinced that their country’s diplomatic representatives are there to deal with even the most trivial requests from holidaymakers
When the cause of death is uncertain, the process may include a police investigation, autopsy and cutting through other red tape before documentation, including the death certificate, can be supplied to the funeral services provider, before being passed on to the insurer. This time-consuming process can be smoothed by the timely co-operation of diplomats, says Greenwood. The involvement of consulates can also reassure bereaved families, she adds.
Perhaps the biggest problem to overcome in developing relationships long-term between assistance and repatriation providers and embassies is change – change in personnel, operating systems, in-country politics and regulations, says Leach. “To overcome this, an investment of quality time from [all parties] is required,” he told ITIJ.
Greenwood agrees: “Consular diplomats will typically be posted in an embassy for between three and five years before being reposted to another location around the world. Maintaining good, positive working relationships with diplomats is extremely important and a never-ending process.”
A good track record
Travel companies, airlines, insurers, assistance companies and government entities, such as the UK’s FCO and the US State Department, have acquired considerable expertise in working together and co-operating with local authorities and first responders; expertise that can quickly be applied when a major crisis occurs that requires a massive joint effort to assist and repatriate insured (and uninsured) travellers. Recent events – from the collapse of UK tour operator Thomas Cook and the subsequent repatriation of hundreds of thousands of its clients, to apocalyptic scenes of fire and flood in Australia and Indonesia, worryingly heightened tensions in the Middle East and the global Covid-19 pandemic – highlight the need for travel insurers, assistance providers and their partners to build and maintain close working relationships with diplomatic services and missions in their home countries and abroad.
“In mass critical situations, such as the recent tragedy on White Island in New Zealand, the more experienced and connected all the agencies and assistance providers are, the better,” said Leach. “It concentrates effort and prevents duplication of actions.” The White Island tragedy provides an example of good co-operation between travel insurance providers and government departments, in this case Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Leach explained: “Medical evacuations are complex logistical undertakings that sometimes require the involvement of local government officials, so having strong relationships with local consulates can help expedite approval processes and times.”
Strong relationships with local consulates can also expedite positive and timely outcomes to less dramatic problems such as issuing new documents to replace missing passports, or issuing new passports for newborn infants – especially when the nuances of how such cases are completed can change rapidly. “Requirements on documentation can change without notice or warning to the general public due to a change in legislation or due to political changes,” said Greenwood. “If you have a strong working relationship (with consulates), you will be made aware of any substantial changes, which will assist in ensuring all correct paperwork is presented and therefore ensuring there are no delays in issuing the necessary permissions for repatriation to proceed.”
Maintaining good, positive working relationships with diplomats is extremely important and a never-ending process
As is clear, there are many complexities involved in carrying out international repatriations and in assisting travellers abroad with medical or travel-related problems. But each party involved in assisting travellers has their part to play, and each relies on the other at some point to get their job done. Building and maintaining relationships with embassies and consulates around the world is thus critical for travel insurance and assistance providers. How this is done is down to individual companies and consulates, but progress is certainly being made.