The Australian government is being pressed to launch more travel bubbles with low-risk COVID countries, as the tourism industry braces for borders to stay closed for the foreseeable future.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham on Thursday broke the news that our international border will likely remain shut well into 2022.
It comes as New Zealand hits pause on quarantine-free travel for New South Wales residents, following the detection of two new COVID-19 cases.
From 11.59pm on Thursday, flights were suspended for 48 hours, with NZ saying it will reassess its stance when the missing transmission link is found.
Despite this hiccup, tourism experts say the government could easily open the border to ‘low-risk’ countries like Singapore, Taiwan and the Pacific Islands – they just need to do a few simple things.
The case for more travel bubbles
Mr Birmingham’s argument on Thursday was that even if the vaccine rollout was completed, new, stronger virus strains, paired with global outbreaks, means our border would need to stay shut.
“Given uncertainties that exist not just in the speed of the vaccine rollout but also the extent of its effectiveness to different variants of COVID, the duration of its longevity and effectiveness, these are all considerations that mean we won’t be seeing borders flung open at the start of next year with great ease,” Mr Birmingham told The Australian.
He stopped short of saying what it would take for borders to open.
But senior lecturer in the Management Discipline Group specialising in tourism at UTS David Beirman said Australia was in a good position to create more bubbles.
“We have a bubble going between us and New Zealand, and we have the potential to go between us and other countries,” Dr Beirman told The New Daily.
“I don’t see any reason we couldn’t have a bubble with Fiji, Singapore, Taiwan … many of the Pacific Island countries, but the Australian government has been reluctant to try it.”
Of course we need to take these next steps in a safe and considered manner, but Dr Beirman pointed to our neighbour NZ’s travel arrangement with the Cook Islands as an example we can follow.
To manage safe travel, it could be sold in packages – transport, accommodation, activities – so governments and health officials could easily keep track of people’s movements and potential exposures, he said.
“You have to give people the option to go where it’s safe.”
Singapore off the table for now
A potential bubble with Singapore was popped this week after a fresh outbreak saw the southeast Asian country enact new restrictions, including barring incoming travellers.
The outbreak means any bubble talks between Australia and Singapore will likely slow down.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also recently said Australia was in “no position” to be announcing the next potential bubble.
Mr Morrison this week reiterated, however, his interest in “vaccine passports” for fully vaccinated Australians.
Dean Long, CEO of the Accommodation Association, said industry groups had been left in the dark, with no communication from the government about what it will take for the border to open – in bubbles or in its entirety.
“What we really struggle with, within this whole thing, is there doesn’t appear to be a clear road map,” Mr Long said.
“We’re getting random announcements from the Finance Minister, the Chief Health Officer says one thing, and the PM comes up with another date.”
He said there were opportunities to “rejoin the world” in a safe way, but the government had not communicated what needed to happen to get there – or which countries could be on the list.
“We are just asking for a roadmap, if a vaccine has been distributed to this number of people, infection rates are at this level, we could do ‘X’,” Mr Long said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has previously said even with a full vaccination rollout there was no “guarantee” our border would reopen to the rest of the world.
Brett Kapernick is the deputy CEO of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council. He said Mr Birmingham’s comments were “disappointing”, but unsurprising.
“A bubble indicates it’s between us and other countries, but we have to be careful – because some won’t be between just us and them,” he said.
“[The government] will be looking at what other countries interact with those countries and the efficiency of the systems they have in place.”
It’s true that opening one door could close another. NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already said if Australia opens up its borders to another country, the trans-Tasman bubble will be carefully reviewed.
Mr Kapernick said the domestic travel numbers were looking good, but many people still seemed to be waiting to see what will happen with international borders, before booking a holiday at home.
“I think we’ll see more countries opening borders in a selected way,” he said.