Australia to reopen borders from Feb 21 but tourism recovery may be slow

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said entry will be allowed for all travellers who hold visas and are double-vaccinated.

Jonathan Pearlman

Jonathan Pearlman

The Straits Times

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Australia gradually began opening its borders, starting with quarantine-free travel bubbles with New Zealand and Singapore. PHOTO: AFP

February 8, 2022

SYDNEY – Australia will finally reopen its borders to all foreign travellers from Feb 21, ending a two-year closure that has been devastating for the nation’s tourism sector.

Announcing the measure on Monday (Feb 7), Prime Minister Scott Morrison said entry will be allowed for all travellers, such as tourists and students, who hold visas and are double-vaccinated.

“If you’re double-vaccinated, we look forward to welcoming you back to Australia,” he said.

Australia closed its borders in March 2020 and has since implemented some of the world’s strictest travel curbs, including bans on Australians travelling overseas and caps on the numbers of travellers allowed to enter.

But the nation gradually began opening its borders, starting with quarantine-free travel bubbles with New Zealand and Singapore. Mr Morrison said these schemes had shown that full international travel could now safely resume.

“Those programmes have proceeded very successfully, whether it was the programmes we had in place with New Zealand or Singapore, and then with Japan and South Korea, opening up to international students and backpackers and economic migrants who are coming to Australia,” Mr Morrison told reporters.

Much of Australia is currently in the grip of a surge in Covid-19 cases, mostly blamed on the highly transmissible but less deadly Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The spike began after social distancing and domestic travel restrictions were eased late last year. But case numbers and hospitalisations have begun to drop, raising hopes that the outbreak has peaked.

Australia recorded 23,169 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, including 8,275 in Victoria and 7,437 in New South Wales. But this is down from a peak of more than 100,000 daily cases in mid-January. There were 3,914 Covid-19 patients in hospital on Monday, down from a peak of 5,391 two weeks ago.

The reopening was welcomed by Australia’s tourism sector, which has been devastated by the closures of foreign and domestic borders during the past two years.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents about 290 airlines, welcomed the move, saying it was “a big step forward” for the airline community.

“The Asia-Pacific region has been very cautious in its approach to border restrictions so far, but in recent weeks, we have seen growing momentum towards relaxation… in the Philippines, Thailand, and to some extent New Zealand,” said Mr Philip Goh, the association’s regional vice-president for Asia-Pacific.

“We urge other governments in the Asia-Pacific to look at similarly further easing their border restrictions.”

But travel experts in Australia have warned that the reopening may not lead to an immediate turnaround.

The Tourism and Transport Forum, a peak travel body, said airlines will need time to boost flights and capacity, tourism businesses will need to build up staff numbers, and the sector will need to restart targeted marketing campaigns.

The organisation’s chief executive, Ms Margy Osmond, said the industry may never recover to pre-pandemic levels, particularly as countries compete to attract international travellers who remain “shy” as the pandemic continues.

“This is a critical first step, but we were losing A$4 billion (S$3.82 billion) a month in international travel spend during the pandemic,” she told The Australian Financial Review.

“It’s going to take years. I don’t know whether we will get back to pre-Covid levels.”

In addition, some travel experts believe Australia’s reputation as a tourism destination has been damaged by two years of strict closures and its legacy of confusing and frequently changing rules.

Despite the reopening later this month, travellers will still need to be wary of travel and testing rules, which can vary by state. Western Australia, for instance, will remain closed to visitors as it tries to prevent an Omicron outbreak. It has not announced a date for a full reopening for domestic or international travellers. The state recorded 26 new cases on Monday.

But the state’s premier, Mr Mark McGowan, said on Monday that the compulsory quarantine period for interstate and international travellers will be cut from 14 days to seven days from Wednesday.

“Opening ourselves up… does mean the virus will spread faster,” he told reporters.”Given our low case numbers for so long, it may shock some people, but it’s necessary to keep the community moving.”

Australia’s travel rules by state
New South Wales: Isolate and test within 24 hours of arrival and on or after day six.

Western Australia (from Wednesday): Seven days of mandatory quarantine, then seven days of compulsory mask wearing.

South Australia: Isolate until test is taken within 24 hours of arrival.

Victoria: Isolate until test is taken within 24 hours of arrival.

Queensland: Isolate until test is taken within 24 hours of arrival.

Tasmania: No quarantine required.

These rules apply to double-dose vaccinated passengers who have undertaken required tests before departure.

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