The federal government’s latest Christmas promise is for the resumption of international flights, with hopes of allowing vaccinated Australians overseas “with no restrictions” and bringing back those stranded abroad.
But exactly which countries Australians will be able to travel to, and which destinations carriers will decide to run flights to, remain up in the air.
“Nobody’s quite sure, which is the base problem. It doesn’t give confidence to the consumer to make bookings,” said Tom Manwaring, executive chair of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents.
“We’re trying to get that confidence back, but bookings won’t come until the quarantine issue is solved.”
Federal Tourism Minister Dan Tehan gave the latest indication on the government’s thinking and planning during a National Press Club speech on Wednesday.
Mr Tehan, who was about to hop on a plane for in-person negotiations on Australia’s pending trade agreement with the European Union, said he hoped the nation’s international borders would open “at the latest by Christmas”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking in Washington DC, said once Australia’s adult vaccination rate hit 80 per cent, opening the international border was “certainly what we intend to facilitate”.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is particularly keen to welcome back travellers through Sydney Airport, and the PM said he had been “working through those issues” with NSW because “they’re likely to be the first state that goes into that opportunity.”
Issues like home quarantine, and ‘vaccine passports’ through a QR code are still being tested.
However, the federal government hasn’t publicly confirmed which countries could be on the travel itinerary once the borders open.
There are expectations Australia would have a ‘traffic light’ system, with countries given a green, yellow or red zone classification, with different quarantine or travel rules, depending on vaccination rates or COVID-19 cases.
Mr Manwaring said this system was “too complicated”, and suggested international tourists simply wouldn’t holiday in Australia if they had to quarantine.
He predicted people from countries where employees only got two or four weeks holiday wouldn’t choose Australia if they needed to spend a week or two in isolation.
“Britain has abandoned quarantine, so has the US. Canada has a liberal system. You can’t go on holiday and not have confidence coming home,” Mr Manwaring said.
“Tourists won’t come if they have to quarantine.”
Qantas has already outlined its plans.
It shared an initial list of destinations which it said was “likely to include” the airline’s “key international markets” like Singapore, the US, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and Fiji, to which it planned to begin flying from mid-December.
“Flights would start from Australia to COVID-safe destinations which are highly likely to be classed as low-risk countries for vaccinated travellers to visit and return with reduced quarantine requirements,” the carrier said.
“The rest of the Qantas international network is planned to open up from April 2022.”
Portugal, Malta, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Qatar have the world’s top vaccination rates, according to data tracker Our World In Data.
Canada comes in at No.12, the United Kingdom at 17, Japan at 40 and the US at 41.
Countries with higher vaccination rates than the US, which is being prioritised as an early destination, but which are not yet on Australia’s initial list include Spain at No.6, China at No.12, Iceland, Denmark, Chile, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, France, Germany and Malaysia.
In 2019, Booking.com revealed Singapore, London, Tokyo and Auckland were Australia’s most-booked travel destinations, which are in line with Qantas’ priorities to restart those routes.
However, it may still be some time yet before other Australian favourite holiday destinations like Indonesia’s Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, Rome and Paris are on the cards.
Indonesia has just 17 per cent of its population fully vaccinated, according to Our World In Data, while Vietnam is at just 6.8 per cent, and Thailand at 22 per cent.
Italy and France are further along the spectrum, at 66 and 64 per cent fully vaccinated.
On Wednesday, Mr Tehan wouldn’t confirm exactly how Australia’s travel system would work by year’s end, saying further crucial details on vaccination certificates and home quarantine were still being ironed out.
Quarantine-free travel bubbles with certain nations are also high on the agenda, but the construction of specialised quarantine facilities in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia suggests mandatory isolation will be a feature of life for some arrivals for years to come.
However, the minister did suggest Australians may be able to travel anywhere they liked – pending a willingness to quarantine, or whether airlines decide to run flights.
“People will be able to freely travel outside of Australia with no restrictions or no limitations, so outbound travel will open up,” Mr Tehan said.
“Obviously it will be dependent on the requirements that are put in place of the countries they are travelling with, but outbound travel opens up.”
He said further travel bubbles, like the currently-suspended arrangement with New Zealand, would let Australians come home with no need to quarantine.
This, travel agents said, would be a key requirement for kickstarting international travel again, with tourists and business travellers likely to be discouraged by several weeks quarantine on arrival or return from overseas.
“You’re asking airlines to crank up planes to fly into Australia, which need to have tourists to fly into Australia,” Mr Manwaring said.
He suggested international arrivals should be tested before departure or on arrival back into Australia, to lessen the need for mandatory quarantine for all arrivals.
Mr Tehan said negotiations on quarantine or testing arrangements for arrivals was a key sticking point in such bubble agreements.
That suggested Australians arriving from other places without a bubble arrangement may still need to quarantine.
“I’m looking forward to Australians being able to travel again and and for Australians to be able to return to to Australia,” Mr Morrison said.