Australia’s tourism industry is pleading with the federal government for a ‘roadmap’ to reopening borders, fearing the nation may be “left behind” as other countries throw open their doors for vaccinated travellers.
“I know it’s politically successful to talk about shutting down borders, but this is not where we want to be at the end of this year,” Dean Long, CEO of the Accommodation Association, told The New Daily.
“At some point, it will be safe to reopen the border. We’re asking, ‘What does that look like?’ It’s a really crucial policy setting.”
EU opening ‘safely’
Much of Australia’s border debate is about tightening measures, with heavy scrutiny on the government’s India travel ban and how to strengthen hotel quarantine.
But half a world away, the European Union is readying to restart international tourism, with plans to allow fully vaccinated people or those from countries with low COVID risk to travel for leisure.
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, tweeted it was “time to revive EU tourism industry… safely”. The plan includes an emergency brake” to address future outbreaks and limit travel if needed.
It’s a plan Australian tourism operators noted with envy on Tuesday, as they wait for the federal government to outline similar plans Down Under.
Mr Long said he understood borders needed to remain shut right now, citing escalating virus outbreaks in India and elsewhere, but said his industry was pleading for clarity.
“It’s the central issue missing in the COVID discussion at the moment, a lack of a roadmap and an understanding COVID isn’t going to disappear,” he said.
“What we want is a clear idea of what success looks like and how borders can safely open. They’re closed now, and that’s fine, but we need a clear set of indicators.”
“We’re not even having that discussion. Nobody is willing to have that discussion.”
Outbound travel from Australia is officially restricted, and only allowed through government exemptions for special business or personal circumstances. Border closures have been praised as a key measure in keeping Australia’s death and infection toll relatively low, by world standards.
The federal government had, until recently, hoped to reopen the international border from October. But vaccination program delays saw that target scrapped, with no replacement yet publicly set.
As of May 3, 2.31 million COVID vaccinations were given in Australia. The government initially projected administering four million by April.
The government has extended financial support to travel agents and aviation as JobKeeper supports ended, in recognition those industries would continue hurting from border closures.
Australian tourism industry asks questions
Christian Hunter, director at the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, also acknowledged health should be the main priority. But with borders shut for over a year, and no indication when that could change, he said the industry was desperate for a pathway.
“We have to open, at some point, to the world. We can’t stay locked down forever,” Mr Hunter told TND.
He said moves globally to restart tourism were “positive”, but noted such changes were largely linked to vaccination success.
“Europe is months ahead of Australia in the vaccination program. Those nations are more advanced, Australia is really only starting to do it in volumes in the past month,” Mr Hunter said.
“Australia is going to be left behind.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian echoed similar sentiments on Tuesday, saying “there is a degree of comfort in the bubble that we have” but that, “You can only sustain a bubble for so long”.
Tourism and Trade Minister, Dan Tehan, said the government was mindful of pressures on the travel industry, but had health as its focus.
“The health and safety of Australians is our Government’s top priority. International borders will only re-open when it is safe to do so and guided by expert medical advice,” Mr Tehan told TND.
“Australia’s health and economic response to COVID-19 combined with our unique tourist attractions and world-leading tourism providers will ensure Australia remains a popular destination for international visitors.”
He said the government would “explore further travel bubbles” like the two-way arrangement with New Zealand, which he called “great news for the tourism sectors in both countries”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt surprised many last month, when he suggested Australia may continue quarantine for international arrivals, long after widespread vaccination.
The government is investigating whether two weeks mandatory hotel quarantine could be shortened or altered after vaccination.
But Mr Hunter said keeping such measures could “take Australia off the map” for international tourists.
“From a leisure destination perspective, people won’t have time or money [for quarantine],” he said.
Calls for new roadmap
The Australian Tourism Export Council is running a ‘roadshow’ across the country, gathering concerns from industry to raise with government.
The council’s managing director Peter Shelley said he expected the government would link reopening plans to vaccination figures.
“It’s always been our understanding we’d need the greater percentage of Australia to be vaccinated, to ensure we’ve got protection for the community,” Mr Shelley told TND.
Mr Shelley said the industry welcomed a boost to domestic tourism, plus the opening of a travel ‘bubble’ with New Zealand – plus talk of possible further arrangements with countries like Singapore or Taiwan.
“We expect to see other countries opening up for bubbles, but we haven’t heard much,” he said.
“The current international outbreak is challenging everyone’s thoughts on this, but our industry is really desperate.”
Labor’s tourism spokesperson Don Farrell called on the government to provide a “clear, sector-wide plan for support and recovery”.
“Australia can only re-open to visitors when it’s safe,” he said.
“Right now, the Morrison government can’t even manage to bring Australians home safely, let alone get our nation vaccinated so we can consider a path towards recovery.”