Australia’s international borders will not reopen to most countries until at least mid-2022, the federal government has predicted in this week’s budget.
“Inbound and outbound international travel is expected to remain low through to mid 2022, after which a gradual recovery in international tourism is assumed to occur,” according to budget documents.
The truth is that nobody really knows with any certainty when Australia’s extended border closure will end. But the federal government says that “a key factor in the timing of the reopening of international borders” will be that “continued economic recovery will rely on the effective containment of COVID 19 outbreaks both here and abroad”.
The new “mid-2022” estimate is significantly later than the government’s previous prediction that Australia’s international border would reopen around the end of October 2021. That prediction was made on the assumption that Australia’s vaccination rollout – now significantly delayed and behind its previous targets – would be completed by around October. The government is now predicting this will happen by around the end of this year.
Once international travel does resume, the budget assumes it will be a slow and steady recovery rather than a sudden rush.
Qantas pushes back planned international restart
As a result of the revised forecasts, Qantas has pushed back the planned restart of its international flights (other than New Zealand) to 19 December 2021. Since February, Qantas had been selling tickets on many international routes from 31 October 2021.
But even the revised date in December 2021 now seems very optimistic. For now, Qantas is still taking bookings for travel over the peak Christmas and summer holiday period, when forward bookings are reportedly strong. But realistically, nobody really knows at this point which – if any – of those flights will actually take off.
“We will keep reviewing these plans as we move towards December and circumstances evolve,” Qantas said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Virgin Australia now says it will not resume any international flights – except services to Queenstown – until at least December 2021.
Australians could be banned from leaving their own country for more than two years
The news has horrified many Australians who have already been waiting more than a year for international borders to reopen.
Since March 2020, most Australians have been unable to travel overseas to attend weddings and funerals, see their children or grandchildren, be with parents or grandparents, or many of the other legitimate reasons for wanting or needing to travel overseas – let alone go on overseas holidays. Many Australian businesses have also struggled as they have been unable to conduct normal business, with the tourism industry affected especially badly.
If the budget prediction is correct, Australians will remain unable to leave their own country without an exemption – and visitors banned from entering – for at least another year.
Many other countries have quarantine requirements for inbound travellers, and the number of other countries that overseas travellers may be allowed to enter remains somewhat limited. But Australia is the only country in the “Western” world that has banned its own citizens from leaving their own country throughout the pandemic.
The UK did recently introduce a temporary international travel requirement for citizens to prove they have a “reasonable excuse” to leave the country. But this is simply a matter of filling out a form – and the requirement is being removed from next Monday.
More travel bubbles, return of international students possible before mid-2022
There is still a possibility of more travel bubbles opening with individual countries before mid-2022. Australia’s two-way travel bubble with New Zealand, which launched on 19 April 2021, has so far been relatively successful despite New Zealand pausing arrivals from individual states for a few short periods. Bubbles with countries in Asia or the Pacific Islands could be next, although there have not yet been any specific announcements.
“We remain optimistic that additional bubbles will open once Australia’s vaccine rollout is complete to countries who, by then, are in a similar position, but it’s difficult to predict which ones at this stage,” the Qantas statement said.
Some Australian states are also now making plans to bring international students back.
Per budget documents, “A gradual return of temporary and permanent migrants is assumed to occur from mid 2022. Small phased programs for international students will commence in late 2021 and gradually increase from 2022.”
Is Australia’s quarantine capacity adequate?
Realistically, as long as hotel quarantine remains a mandatory requirement for overseas arrivals, the country’s ability even to welcome back Australian citizens and permanent residents – let alone other visitors – will be severely limited.
“The rate of international arrivals will continue to be constrained by state and territory quarantine caps over 2021 and the first half of 2022, with the exception of passengers from Safe Travel Zones,” the federal government budget states.
The federal government is currently expanding the capacity of the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory. But tens of thousands of Australians are still stuck overseas more than a year into the pandemic, and the budget contains no plans for new quarantine facilities.
Australia’s limited quarantine capacity – and subsequently, the international arrival caps – is the main reason so many Australians are still stranded abroad. More quarantine capacity is desperately needed – especially if quarantine is to remain a key component of travelling to Australia for at least another year.
Struggling tourism industry needs more certainty
The tourism sector has hit out at what it’s calling “border roulette”. Margy Osmond from the Tourism and Transport Forum told The Sydney Morning Herald that the sectors she represents need more certainty and clarity from the government.
“It’s becoming border roulette, everyone in the government’s got a different attitude about when the border will reopen,” Osmond said.
“To say the middle of next year – it just doesn’t cut it.”
Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC) Executive Director Simon Westaway said that the budget announcements gave no confidence to the tourism sector.
“The Federal Budget outlook indicates no foreseeable international market recovery for Australia’s visitor economy, and this sadly spells further tourism business and job losses,” Westaway said.
“Low national COVID-19 vaccination rates need to be rapidly lifted urgently, to enable industry to work constructively with the Government on a safe, if staggered, future border re-opening timetable.”
State borders predicted to remain (mostly) open
If there’s one silver lining from the budget, the federal government believes the worst of the Australian internal state border closures are behind us.
“During 2021, localised outbreaks of COVID 19 are assumed to occur but are effectively contained,” the budget says.
“It is assumed that there are no extended or sustained state border restrictions in place over the forecast period.”
Join the discussion on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Predictions of when international flights may resume/bans lifted