News National Open borders are welcome, but it’s a long road ahead for the tourism sector

Open borders are welcome, but it’s a long road ahead for the tourism sector

Borders reopening
Australia will once again welcome international visitors in two weeks' time. Photo: Getty
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Tourism operators have welcomed the news that Australia will open to foreigners in two weeks, but stress there’s more work to do.

From February 21, tourists, international students and other visa holders will be allowed back into Australia after almost two years – provided they’re double-vaccinated.

The general manager of the Australian Tourism Export Council, Peter Shelley, said it was good to finally have some certainty after “two years in the wilderness”.

He estimates that international tourism to Australia in 2022 might grow to 20-25 per cent of what it was back in 2019.

“We believe demand is strong, but confidence might take a little while to come back,” Mr Shelley told The New Daily.

That’s because Australia is still an appealing destination – even more so after how the country managed the pandemic – but people are just hesitant to travel overseas in general.

Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum, added: “It’s not as simple as just turning on the tap and we see numbers of international tourists back where they were pre-COVID.”

While some businesses such as hotels had intermittent respite thanks to domestic tourism, some businesses that were wholly dependant on international clients before the pandemic have struggled to stay afloat.

Travel agents who focused on tours and international flights to Australia were particularly hard hit.

“Over the two-year period, they have had no chance of getting any revenue at all,” Mr Shelley said.

“So they have been absolutely hit with a zero-revenue opportunity, and there are many others around the country that have been stopped and started, and stopped and started, which has been very, very difficult as well.”

Australian Airports Association CEO James Goodwin said international air travel was only at 15 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

“In pre-COVID times 30 per cent of domestic air travellers were international passengers,” Mr Goodwin added.

“International tourists don’t just visit one Australian city. They fly from state to state to see all of what our nation has to offer, so it is vital all domestic borders reopen and stay open.”

Enforcing the one main restriction

Australia’s pending open border policy has reignited the Novak Djokovic saga from January, which saw the world No. 1 tennis player detained over his supposed vaccine exemption.

On Sunday, before the official border announcement, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews told the ABC’s Insiders that the rules are clear.

“To be able to enter Australia, if you are a non-Australian, you need to have a valid visa and you need to demonstrate that you are fully vaccinated, or that you have medical evidence to say that you cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons,” Ms Andrews said.

“If you speak, specifically, about Mr Djokovic, the issue was he couldn’t prove that he had a medical reason for not being vaccinated.”

But after the announcement on Monday afternoon, Labor immigration spokesperson Kristina Keneally said the government demonstrated that it didn’t have the ability to enforce vaccine restrictions tat the border just yet.

“The Djokovic saga shows how vulnerable our borders have become, with 30 years of visa management turned on its head as Mr Morrison handballs the Australian Border Force the job of assessing vaccination status at the border, instead of assessing much earlier in the visa application process,” she wrote on Twitter.

Mr Morrison, meanwhile, used the saga as a warning.

“I think events earlier in the year should have sent a very clear message to everyone around the world that is the requirement to enter into Australia,” he told reporters.

The road ahead

Mr Shelley called on the government to provide a marketing stimulus since many businesses were forced to coast on their savings, if they were even able to stay open in the first place.

He’d like to see a big campaign from Tourism Australia to welcome visitors back here.

The government could also help by making training more accessible.

“We need to repair our workforce, we need to repair our skills base. There’s lots of training to be undertaken,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ms Osmond said it’s essential to get key flight routes back up and running again.

Aside from Qantas, several major airlines already fly regularly to and from Australia. They include Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines.

But despite the tough road ahead, Monday’s announcement was still good news.

“It’s been some very dark times, to be very honest, for our industry and for the businesses, and the staff, and their families,” Mr Shelley said.

“So we’ve now got a stop date, and it’s open to all markets, so let’s hope we can now rebuild back what is a fairly devastated industry over that period of time.”