Predicting when overseas travel will resume has become the world’s new favourite guessing game. Considering the tourism and travel industry is estimated to be worth almost $3 trillion USD to the global economy, many livelihoods are at stake. The pathway to re-opening borders is tricky for countries like Australia, that have managed to clamp down on COVID-19. There’s more at risk if these nations have renewed outbreaks of the virus.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped officials from tentatively floating dates for resuming international travel. Recent reports of experimental COVID-19 vaccines showing positive early signs have further renewed optimism. Some believe we could now see borders opening as soon as March 2021. So, where does that leave us? Let’s unpack.
The government’s current stance
At the time of publishing, Australia’s borders are closed. The only people allowed into the country are:
- Australian citizens
- immediate family members of citizens/residents
- travellers who have been in New Zealand for the previous 14 days
According to the Department of Home Affairs, there are a few others exempt from travel restrictions as well, but these are the major ones.
All travellers arriving in Australia will be coming from either a ‘red’ or ‘green’ travel zone. Those arriving from countries considered high-risk for COVID-19 will be coming from a red zone, while passengers arriving from low-risk countries will be travelling from a green zone.
‘Green’ zone countries
As of the 16 October 2020, only people who have been in New Zealand for 14 days prior to travelling to Australia will be coming from a green zone. As a result, passengers arriving from New Zealand don’t have to complete a mandatory 14 day quarantine if:
- they travelled on a green zone flight, and
- have been in New Zealand for 14 days prior to travel.
In terms of Australia opening its international borders, the government has been fairly vague with dates. In a recent interview with Sky News, Minister for Finance, Tourism and Trade, Simon Birmingham, said overseas travel could resume in 2021. However, this will largely depend on whether a COVID-19 vaccine is available.
“It’s not impossible. I would like to think we would see such success in terms of both the vaccines and their effectiveness… I think the first half [of the year] may be challenging but let’s just see how we go in terms of how quickly we can secure, distribute, and get that take up in relation to vaccines.”
Australia’s vaccine options
Four different vaccines have been secured for use in Australia – should they prove effective. Effectiveness being the keyword. Most vaccines have to undergo many clinical trials and tests before they can be given to the public. That said, the below table indicates when we might see these vaccines rolled out.
|Oxford/AstraZeneca||33.8 million doses available potentially from Jan 2021|
|Pfizer/BioNTech||10 million doses available from early/mid 2021|
|Novavax||40 million doses available from early/mid 2021|
|University of Queensland/CSL||51 million doses available from mid 2021|
The government has outlined all plans for their vaccination program under their Australian COVID-19 Vaccination Policy to determine the distribution of the vaccine. The policy is pretty ambitious, detailing what would be one of the biggest exercises in health logistics Australia has ever seen.
Key takeaways from the program include:
- Free of charge vaccinations available to all Australian citizens, permanent residents, and most visa-holders
- Vaccinations will NOT be mandatory, but strongly encouraged
- Vaccinations will be rolled out on the basis of priority populations, with scope for redirections to any areas that experience an outbreak
- The program will be overseen by the Commonwealth, with defined responsibilities for the Australian and State and Territory governments
Will a vaccine be enough?
Hope for international travel is almost exclusively pinned on a vaccine. Yet, even if we see one or more rolled out in the next year, it may not be enough. Experts have pointed out a range of obstacles that may slow down or undermine potential immunisations. For example, no vaccine is 100% effective. Given the nature of biology, there’ll always be limitations.
Add to this the growing anti-vax movement, and the outlook could be grim. Even if Australia can vaccinate its own population, the possibility of free international travel only really becomes a viable option when other countries have similar rates of immunisation. Just this month, the New York Times reported only 58% of American adults were willing to be vaccinated – meaning a vaccine may not be enough to lift the restrictions on all international travel.
Professor Marylouise McLaws, an epidemiologist specialising in infection prevention and control at the University of NSW, said it best:
When are international flights likely to resume?
Well, technically they already have. It is possible to get out of Australia and travel to a range of overseas destinations. The issue is coming back and having to undergo the 14 day mandatory quarantine.
Flights are also extremely limited and much more expensive given the reduced demand. Some airlines have also stopped servicing routes to certain locations, so it really comes down to the destination.
Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, has previously warned that international air travel won’t resume until there’s a vaccine available. In a recent interview with A Current Affair, he even went so far as to say that a vaccine would be a condition of travel.
What could travel look like post-COVID-19?
Following Joyce’s comments, it’s clear that the future of travel is going to be very different from what we’re used to. If the difficulties in restarting domestic travel are anything to go by, recommencing international tourism is going to be just as complicated – even with a vaccine.
In an article with Traveller, Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor specialising in global health security at the University of Sydney said:
Kamradt-Scott suggests that, if travellers haven’t been vaccinated, they may be given the option to get vaccinated or return home. He echoed Joyce’s statements, believing airlines may start requiring evidence of vaccinations before they permit travellers to board.
When international travel does eventually resume for Aussies, it’s most likely going to start with Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. All nations which have managed the pandemic better than the likes of the US and UK.
Barring all this, the jury’s still out on when exactly international travel will resume and what it will look like when it does. The good news is that with each passing day we seem to be getting closer to a vaccine and more (albeit limited) overseas travel.
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