International News Editor
Australia has officially reopened its borders to all travelers for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Much of the country lifted restrictions on February 21, sparking an influx of flights into the country as individuals reunited and tourism resumed, Reuters reports. CNN adds that the last state to reopen, Western Australia, accepted its first flights on March 3, fully reopening the country’s borders and ending quarantine requirements for vaccinated individuals.
Australia, which became known over the course of the pandemic for having some of the most restrictive entry requirements in the world, spent the first 18 months of the pandemic almost completely locked down, reports. Restrictions started easing in November 2021 as the state started allowing the entrance of foreign students, family members of citizens, and some international workers. Despite surging cases due to the Omicron variant in early January, The New York Times reports that a 94 percent vaccination rate amongst citizens over 16 limited the effect of the variant and allowed the country to transition to a “living with the virus” mindset.
The reopening of Australia’s tourism industry has been highly anticipated. Tourism is one of Australia’s largest industries, worth nearly $43 billion, Reuters adds. Despite fears that tourism would be slow to return following the reopening due to international caution and persisting testing requirements, The New York Times reports that flight bookings to Australia were up 200 percent within a week of the announced reopening, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters that nearly 1.2 million people around the world have obtained Australian visas, The Washington Post adds. Tourism levels in 2022 are not expected to reach their previous peak seen in 2019, but Australian industries are welcoming incoming tourists with open arms.
Despite international caution, many Australians are optimistic about what reopening means for the country. “It’s about coming back so the virus is under our control, whereas we felt that the virus was controlling us,” Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne, told The New York Times, emphasizing that the reopening represented a turning point in pandemic attitudes. “This is saying: We’re ready for this.”
Australia’s reopening represents changing international attitudes towards COVID-19 restrictions, both domestic and international. CNBC reports that Australia joins several other countries that had previously heavily restricted travel in reopening this month, including New Zealand, the Philippines, and Bali. Other countries, such as the UK, are loosening their internal restrictions, with Britain officially ending all government-mandated restrictions and self-isolation requirements, reports ABC News.
Throughout the pandemic, Australia’s strict internal restrictions earned the country the nickname “Fortress Australia.” Though some experts agree that the restrictions were successful in limiting case spread throughout the state, The Washington Post reports that many Australians viewed domestic movement restrictions as excessive, particularly those in Western Australia, which required a two-week quarantine upon return for anyone who left the state. Though the state experienced almost no cases over the course of the lockdowns, many Australians felt that the benefits did not outweigh the pain of separation from family and regional isolation. Despite its near-zero case rate, border restrictions in Western Australia did not ease until nearly two months after states such as Victoria and New South Wales, despite a 90 percent vaccination rate and just ten deaths recorded over the course of the pandemic.
To many Australians, the border reopening represents a new chapter in Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with hopes rising that the worst is over. In Sydney, travelers were greeted with large sign reading “Welcome Back World!” placed near runways at the state’s airport, and Reuters reports that Tourism Minister Dan Tehan personally handed out small jars of Vegemite and stuffed koalas to airport visitors. Australia’s message to international travelers is clear – come back.