Health Minister Greg Hunt has dampened international travel hopes even further, claiming even after the whole country is vaccinated against COVID-19 there is no “guarantee” borders will reopen.
With Australia’s vaccine rollout being pushed even further behind schedule due to AstraZeneca now only being recommended for people older than 50, there have been growing concerns about what it means for international travel.
However, Mr Hunt said having the majority of the population vaccinated isn’t a magic key that will unlock international travel again.
“Vaccination alone is no guarantee that you can open up. And this was a discussion that in fact I had with Professor Murphy in just the last 24 hours, that if the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open the borders,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday.
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Mr Hunt said the decision on whether to keep the border closed or reopen it is based on a series of factors that must be carefully considered by officials.
“We still have to look at a series of different factors: transmission, longevity and the global impact. And those are factors which the world is learning about.”
Though Mr Hunt dashed the hopes of Aussies looking forward to jetsetting across the globe, he did hint that more travel bubbles could be established in the near future.
A two-way travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand is set to begin at 11.59pm on April 18, meaning visitors will be able to travel from both countries will be exempt from hotel quarantine.
The government is now turning its attention to other areas in the Pacific region that Australia might be able to make similar arrangements with.
“We’re then looking at other countries within the Pacific and within the region that are potentially low-transmission environments, and therefore Australia can do that,” he said.
“And as we’ve said, this year will be about progressively opening up. And that’s what the Prime Minister has tasked his Department to work on, with all of the states and territories. So a series of safety milestones as we progress forward, which allow us to open up.”
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This latest blow to international travel comes after a new forecast by Deloitte Access Economics’ predicted international travel won’t fully return until 2024.
On top of that, Deloitte said quarantine for arrivals would likely remain in some form for years, as efforts continue to stop the virus being imported back into the country.
Deloitte economist Chris Richardson said that would have a bearing on overseas travel getting back to what it was pre-COVID.
“That keeps international travel – both inbound and outbound – pretty weak in 2022, and it may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024,” he said, according to 7 News.
However, some experts’ predictions for when the borders will reopen are slightly more optimistic.
David Beirman, a senior lecturer in the Management Discipline Group specialising in tourism at UTS Business School, said it was “anyone’s guess” for when Australia would see international travel reopen again, but thinks it could be sooner than many expect.
“My view is that once a number of initial travel bubbles are seen to be working effectively there will be a snowball effect of international tourism resuming partially driven by pent up demand,” he told news.com.au.
Dr Beirman thinks Deloitte’s prediction “errs on the side of pessimism”.
“I prefer to think that we will see an expansion of international travel from mid 2022 but I stress that predictions like this are subject to error,” he said.
What other travel bubbles are the cards for Australia?
Mr Hunt hinted that the government was looking towards establishing more travel bubbles within the Pacific region, with many guessing at where Aussies might be able to travel to next.
Similar to when the international border will reopen, Dr Beirman said when more travel agreements will be established is purely speculative right now, however, he did make a few suggestions on which countries could be next in line.
“Scott Morrison has stated that the trans-Tasman bubble may be the only one on offer for several months. However I have long held the opinion that there is no real reason to prevent extending conditional bubbles to a number of Pacific Island nations including Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands and New Caledonia. Fiji has long advocated the Bula Bubble,” he said.
“All the above are tourismdependent economies with minimal exposure to COVID-19 and if tourist are required to base their holiday in resorts to minimise mass contact with locals, demonstrate evidence they are COVID free before arrival then I see no compelling reason why travel should not resume between Australia and these destinations.”
Dr Beirman said Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand could also be travel bubble destinations in the future.
The UTS lecturer also warned that keeping the international border closed for an extended period of time could impact how long it takes for our inbound international tourism to recover.
“Airlines will not waste resources on re-establishing routes to and from Australia while borders remain closed or heavily restricted and passenger loads are limited to ridiculously low numbers,” he said.
“As a university lecturer I am already seeing a negative impact on our ability to attract new international students which will take years to overcome. Tourism Australia will need to totally reassess our marketing for international visitors.
Before the pandemic, China was one of Australia’s biggest sources of international visitors but the growing tensions between our two countries will like impact that when the borders reopen.
Dr Beirman suggested Australia will probably have to look for new source markets to fill that gap.
“We should be aware of not giving competitor destinations too much of a head start when global tourism does resume and getting on with the vaccination rollout will be an element,” he said.