Bush fires have been raging in Australia for months. At least 25 people are dead. News about the impact on wildlife is devastating. Residents have been forced to flee to beaches or even ships offshore.
But tourism officials in Australia, the world's sixth-largest country, insist that it is still open for business — and that plenty of places that have been spared are eager to welcome visitors.
"Whilst bush fires continue to impact parts of Australia, many areas are unaffected and most tourism businesses are still open," Phillipa Harrison of Tourism Australia said in a statement. "It is more important than ever that we rally around our communities and the tourism sector who may have been impacted."
With that in mind, these are some questions potential visitors might have as they consider traveling to Australia.
Is it safe to visit Australia?
As long as visitors avoid the wildfire areas — and stay aware of air quality if they have health conditions that make them especially sensitive to smoke — they should be safe. Many of the destination's most frequently visited cities are free of fires, including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. And international airports are operating normally, according to tourism officials.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham challenged misinformation online and in some media that "exaggerates the geographical reach of these tragic bush fires."
"I urge people with a booking or considering travel to ensure they have the facts and don't compound the harm to tourism operators by unnecessarily staying away," he said.
What's the best way to stay updated about the dangers?
Tourism Australia has an information page that shows many of the country's most popular sites for international visitors as well as their status. The site includes links to regional tourism sites for more detailed information, as well as regional emergency or fire service sites.
Are cruise ships still going to Australia?
Most major cruise destinations are not in dangerous areas, though five itineraries so far have been adjusted to avoid a couple of regional ports.
"To date, only minor changes have been necessary to a small number of cruises visiting specific locations in southeastern Australia," Joel Katz of Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement. "The country's major cities and the majority of its coastline remain open to visitors and most cruises are continuing unaffected and as scheduled."
Cruise lines have been monitoring the situation closely in case other changes are needed.
Does Australia even want tourists right now?
Absolutely. "The best way to support Australia, Australian communities, and the tourism sector is to keep visiting," Tourism Australia says on its website. "If you cannot travel to an affected area due to bush fires, one of the many ways to help includes rescheduling instead of canceling a planned trip to support the communities in the coming months."
Jarryd Salem, the Sydney-based co-founder of adventure travel blog Nomadasaurus, said in an e-mail that anyone who is considering a visit should realize that the "vast majority" of the country is unaffected by the disaster.
"While certain regions will be impacted for most of the summer, there are a plethora of other destinations to explore, all as beautiful and welcoming as ever," he said. "Any potential visitors should also understand that Australia desperately needs tourism now in light of this disaster. Many communities rely heavily on tourism to boost local economies, and by choosing to visit you will help directly contribute to the recovery."
Officials are thinking about the long term, as well. Birmingham said in his statement that the affected regions would again become safe destinations when they recover in the months or years ahead. "Australia's fire-affected areas will rebuild and I'm confident travelers from across the globe, including from the U.S. will continue to visit, not only to support the recovery of these regions but because they will continue to be world-class tourism destinations," he said.
What is the U.S. government saying?
The U.S. Embassy in Australia warned tourists to leave the South Coast of New South Wales on Jan. 2 after local authorities ordered a "tourist leave zone."
The State Department raised the travel advisory for parts of Australia to Level 2, warning Americans to "exercise increased caution" because of the fires. An update kept the Level 2 status and urged Americans to have evacuation plans that do not rely on assistance from the U.S. government. The message also includes links to fire and emergency services, and suggests that travelers check the air quality for their destination.
"Consider postponing your travel plans to areas where air quality is significantly affected by bush fire conditions," it says.
How can visitors help?
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that officials are asking potential donors to send cash rather than clothes, food or other goods. The paper put together a roundup of fundraising efforts for specific needs including firefighters in New South Wales and Victoria; hunger relief; fire victims and several wildlife organizations.
What is life like for locals?
Experiences are vastly different depending on where people live, of course. Some residents have lost loved ones; others have lost their homes.
Even in areas like Sydney that aren't directly affected by fires, a reminder of the blaze lingers. Lindsay Buckley, a Sydney resident who wrote about the fires on her Frugal Frolicker blog, said in an e-mail that air quality has been terrible.
"Some mornings I wake up to my apartment smelling like bush fire," she said. "Some days it's so hazy from the smoke you can barely see the horizon."
The reality of the disaster weighs heavily on locals, even if they aren't in any danger, said Salem.
"Every single Australian is feeling the emotional strain of these fires, even those not directly affected by them, but it is not changing who we are as people," he wrote. "Any traveler who decides to come and support our communities in the coming months and years will be welcomed with open arms and heartfelt appreciation."