Australia plans to reopen international borders by Christmas, but detail is light on7 min read
International travel is high on the agenda for many Australians, but there is a lot we do not know about how it will work, prompting calls from passengers and the aviation industry for clarity from the federal government.
- The aviation industry wants answers about how and when Australia’s international borders will be reopened
- Experts say the national plan is too vague and are concerned some states will not follow it
- Scrapping quarantine is seen as crucial to encouraging inbound tourism
Gill Harris is one of many Australians who have been separated from their family overseas for almost two years because of travel bans.
In that time Ms Harris and her partner have missed celebrating important birthday milestones with their UK family, postponed their wedding twice and had a baby.
“We would have loved for them to meet our son. We speak to Grandma every day. She doesn’t want to miss out on a thing and she’s desperate for a cuddle if we can get home for Christmas,” she said.
Ms Harris has booked tickets to London with Qantas on December 19. But while airlines are selling tickets, there is no guarantee Australia’s international borders will be open in time.
“It’s quite stressful, really. We would just love some certainty from the government,” she said.
Airlines call for answers
According to the national plan, when 80 per cent of Australians are double vaccinated there will be a “gradual reopening of inward and outward international travel with safe countries,” as well as “proportionate quarantine and reduced requirements for fully vaccinated inbound travellers.”
Last week, Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said he hoped international borders would reopen by Christmas “at the latest”.
But while airlines like Qantas have been bullish about selling tickets to London, the United States, Singapore, Japan and Canada from mid-December, others in the aviation industry are concerned about the timeline and the lack of clarity about how the reopening will work.
The Board of Airlines Representatives Australia (BARA) said airports were currently not resourced to handle additional international flights and there had been limited engagement with the industry from governments at all levels about how to plan for an increase in services.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 82 per cent of the world’s airlines, has warned that some carriers may choose to fly elsewhere if the uncertainty continues.
Before the pandemic, 52 airlines serviced Australia but now there are only 18.
Singapore Airlines has cancelled additional December flights to Australia because of the ongoing uncertainty around the travel bubble with Australia that was referred to in the national plan.
“We don’t have that clarity around whether international arrival caps will continue to be in place come December, and whether or not, or how, incoming passengers will be treated and classified by the government,” said Karl Schubert, south-west Pacific public relations manager at Singapore Airlines.
Singapore Airlines has been operating at 9 per cent capacity because of passenger caps. Like other airlines, it has underwritten the cost of flying almost empty planes with air freight.
“We have about 600 empty seats a day [to Sydney] that can be filled with the flick of a switch. So ultimately, we’re certainly looking forward to getting that clarity from government so we can get more Australians home and being able to reconnect families a lot sooner.”
Cathay Pacific south-west Pacific general manager Rakesh Raicar said Australia was an important market for the airline but added that more clarity was needed to measure demand and plan additional services.
Mr Raicar also wants a consistent approach from all states would be needed when international borders reopen.
That is unlikely because Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania are backing away from opening their borders when 80 per cent of Australians are vaccinated.
Quarantine measures likely to dampen demand
Quarantine is another big issue that will affect demand for overseas travel. At the moment, only South Australia and New South Wales have committed to trialling home quarantine.
Despite missing her family terribly, Ms Harris will cancel her family’s trip to the UK if they have to quarantine at a hotel on their return.
“We just don’t think that having Harry, who will be 10 months old by then, in a hotel for two weeks would work,” she said.
Europe, the US and the UK do not require fully vaccinated travellers to quarantine. Instead, passengers must have tested negative for COVID-19, 72 hours before arrival.
Mr Goh said any requirement for passengers to quarantine on arrival would be a disincentive for tourists to visit Australia.
“Quarantine is the one thing that stops many people from thinking about travelling particularly on leisure but actually for business as well,” he said.
“Parts of Europe and USA are already taking off quite nicely because there’s no quarantine required.”
Passengers in for a ‘rude shock’
Aviation commentator Geoff Thomas, from Airlineratings.com, is critical of the federal government’s handling of reopening international borders.
“Because at the moment, there’s confusion, it’s very concerning, particularly when you look at the track record with the vaccine rollout, which has been a complete shambles. I fear that the international border opening is going to be a similar shambles,” he said.
Mr Thomas expects that only a few travel corridors will reopen — like New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States.
Then there is the issue of vaccine certification verification. The federal government is paying Accenture an estimated $75 million to develop a Digital Passport Declaration (DBD). IATA is also working on a vaccine passport application that would provide whole-of-trip verification.
Some vaccines may not be recognised by different countries. For example, at the moment the United States does not recognise AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria). Passengers must instead have had Pfizer or Moderna.
In addition to those considerations, aviation analyst Neil Hansford said passengers would need to be wary of layovers in countries with questionable COVID-19 vaccination standards.
Mr Hansford is currently consulting on the launch of a North Pacific airline and expects new travel destinations in that region to open up for Australians.
“No Australian is going to want to go to a country where the people aren’t already double vaxxed, and that had a proper record in COVID with only having minimal numbers. You’ve got Pacific Island nations that have had none or two deaths,” he said.
International travel a long way off for many
It’s also unclear if Australia will recognise vaccines like Sinovac, which has been widely used in countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand and Brazil.
Mingming Cheng, an academic from Curtin University, said blocking Chinese tourism would hurt Australia’s tourism sector.
Before the pandemic, the majority of our inbound international tourists came from China, with a spend of $12.4 billion in 2019.
Australia’s closed borders means Mr Cheng and his wife and their newborn daughter have been blocked from seeing their family in China.
Like Ms Harris, they’ve used video calls to stay connected with their parents overseas.
“It’s actually created some emotional stress for our whole families,” he said.
Analysts expect airfares to stay competitive
In some good news, analysts do not expect airfares to remain at inflated prices.
The cheapest return ticket from Sydney to London in mid-January is $2,066, while Sydney to Los Angeles will cost $1,420 and Sydney to Singapore will set you back as little as $1,068, according to price comparison website Skyscanner.
Mr Thomas said with so many unknowns airlines had little choice but to incentivise travellers with well-priced fares.
“That’s been the experience overseas. And I think it’ll be the experience in Australia,” he said.
The ABC has contacted the Tourism Minister Dan Tehan’s office to request an interview.