Australia May Be Opening But Not For Inbound Tourists

After 18 months, Australia is set to reopen its international borders in November. But it’s not business as usual. Initially, only Australians will be allowed to re-enter the country.

Australia is planning to reopen its international borders next month, but only for Australians. Photo: Getty Images

Australian plays catch up

Given most other countries have allowed their citizens to return home throughout the pandemic, it’s not a case of something new from Australia – instead, it is simply a case of Australia getting with the program a year and a half behind most other countries.

In March 2020, Australia closed its borders to non-citizens. It also put very tight limits on the number of citizens and permanent residents who could fly in and pass through the compulsory quarantine process.

In addition, the Australian Government banned its citizens from leaving the country without government permission. Australia’s Biosecurity Act (2015) imposes penalties of up to five years in jail and/or a fine of AU$66,000 if Aussies sneak out the back door. 

With a Federal election due next year, compulsory voting in Australia, and a lot of very unhappy Australians, the Australian Government has decided it is time to cut its citizens loose.

“I want people to have their lives back,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Brisbane radio earlier this week.

Since March 2020, Australians have been banned from leaving the country. Photo: Brisbane Airport Corporation

Australian borders to reopen – sort of

The Australian Government plans to lift the Biosecurity Act enabled travel ban next month. Qantas is planning to resume flights to London and Los Angeles at the same time. In December, the airline will add flights to additional destinations, and some other airlines will resume flying to Australia.

It may sound like some sanity is being restored. But there are caveats. For the time being, fully vaccinated Australians will be free to come and go, subject to entry rules in the destination country. A COVID-19 test regime will be in force, and returning citizens will need to do seven days quarantining at home – a far better option than a costly 14 days in a quarantine hotel.

But this option isn’t available for a tourist who wants to travel to Australia, or a student, or people who want to migrate. It also prevents non-Australian-nationals already in Australia on extended visas from leaving the country because they have no automatic right of return.

The money international students, foreign workers, MICE arrivals, business travel, and day-to-day tourists inject into Australia is massive. Whole industries operate to support and make a living from them. So this ‘Australians only’ position is unsustainable beyond the very short term.

The Australian economy depends on high levels of inbound and outbound airline traffic. Photo: Getty Images

An unsustainable short term border position

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has pushed from some border sanity since COVID-19 began. He welcomes Australia’s tentative steps towards reopening and reports strong demand on international flights scheduled through to Christmas. But Mr Joyce says Australia needs to open up to everyone else as well.

Doing so is obviously in Qantas’ interests, but it’s also in the interests of all the other airlines that fly to Australia or did until COVID-19 struck. Until 2020, most airlines did good (and profitable) business flying to Australia. According to Skyscanner, Sydney remains one of the world’s top unserved airline destinations.

Mr Joyce wants to see the Australian Government adopt what he terms a “test and release program” – test fully vaccinated travelers on arrival, cut them loose to wander at will, and only recall them if the test comes back negative. It’s a strategy other countries have successfully adopted.

How long is the Australians only border stance going to last? Probably two or three months. It’s probable the borders will open soon after to fully vaccinated international students and much-needed skilled workers. Green corridors from selected countries facilitating tourist and business travel are also likely early in 2022. Open slather travel for fully vaccinated tourists from everywhere else? Maybe the second quarter of 2022.

What do you think of the Australian Government’s Australians only border policy? Post a comment and let us know.