Australia and international tourism: The 10 things we got wrong about COVID and travel

COVID-19 has made a habit of making clowns of many a so-called expert but the devastating Delta variant has an even more uncanny propensity to render everyone complete and utter dills.

Yes, mistakes we've made more than a few over the past months, yours truly included, in regards to travel and the pandemic.

Now, a year-and-a-half on, with so many harsh lessons learned, it seems a ripe moment to review and reflect where we went wrong - gravely so in some instances - in this COVID confessional, of sorts.

Here's a rundown of the 10 mistakes we've made about travel during the pandemic, how far we've come, and how far we have to go.

BUBBLES? NO TROUBLE

If there's one specific disappointment about overseas travel in the pandemic, apart from not being able to travel there, it's the failure of the much-vaunted travel bubbles to fully inflate. The start of the trans-Tasman version of the bubble, which sadly now resembles the ill-fated Hindenburg, sparked enormous optimism that this could be a way of allowing residents of low-caseload nations to travel safely to a limited number of equally safe destinations. Even though the trans-Tasman bubble was a stop and start (and now due to Delta completely stopped) affair, it was the only major travel bridge between destinations to ever remotely work with the much-vaunted model between Singapore and Hong Kong now on the scrap heap.

CRUISE SHIPS ARE FLOATING PETRI DISHES

Cruise ship Ruby Princess enters Port Kembla. April 6, 2020. Photo by Nick Moir

The Ruby Princess was one of several cruise ships to experience major outbreaks of COVID-19 on board last year. Photo: Nick Moir

Cruise ships being dismissed as "petri dishes" become one of the great early cliches of the pandemic (add to that the words "unprecedented", "cohort" and "pivot"). Eighteen months later we've bitterly discovered that pretty much any enclosed, poorly-ventilated space, from shopping centres to nursing homes and classrooms to factories, are vulnerable to the virus. Sure, it's not beyond reproach, but to the cruise industry's credit, it was the first segment of the travel industry to seriously and studiously address its health and hygiene deficiencies. Now, with cruising having resumed in the northern hemisphere, the strict yet sensible protocols introduced by cruise lines appear to have succeeded with a relatively small number of cases having been recorded aboard passenger ships.

AIR FILTRATION SYSTEMS ON PLANES WORK MIRACLES

In our naive, unprecedented (sorry) pre-Delta daze, air filters were presented as the one measure that would make air travel completely safe. The reality is no confined space is completely safe, though COVID cases contracted directly on aircraft remain difficult to pin-point. In fact, Qantas declares on its website that "the risk of contracting COVID-19 on board an aircraft is regarded as low due to a combination of factors, including the cabin air filtration system, seating formation (that is passengers aren't sitting face-to-face) and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier." However, it has rightly vowed to only accept fully-vaccinated passengers on its future international flights (and when will it extend the mandate to domestic services?)

WHEN MASKS WERE OPTIONAL ON DOMESTIC FLIGHTS

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Passengers and crew onboard a Qantas Boeing 737-800, flight number QF735 from Sydney to Adelaide at Sydney Airport on September 24, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Flights from Sydney to Adelaide have resumed after the South Australian government's decision to lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for NSW residents. From Thursday 24 September, travellers from New South Wales are able to enter South Australia without having to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. Flight from Sydney to Adelaide after South Australia border reopens to NSW residents.

Photo: Getty Images

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Hello? What were we thinking? Remember when mask-wearing on domestic flights wasn't compulsory due to those miracle filters? Imagine sitting next to a fellow mask-free passenger in the Delta (not the airline) era? Now masks are considered so essential that some European airlines recently banned what are considered the less-efficient cloth, albeit more attractive, versions in favour of higher-standard versions including surgical masks or respirators. US carriers are looking to replicate the edict.

RELAX. THIS WILL ONLY BE A SHORT AND SHARP LOCKDOWN

This won't hurt, promise. As we've bitterly discovered with the Delta variant, the short and sharp three-day lockdown is more likely to be three months long. It will take years to recover from the devastating impact the lockdowns have had on tourism, and on our right to travel.

IT'S NOT A RACE

Note that it wasn't only politicians prone to making this statement back in those kinder, fluffier COVID-19 times, but also senior medical authorities. Now, combined with the agonisingly protracted vaccine procurement and distribution, we're racing to catch up with the rest of the world, particularly in respect to the resumption of travel. It was only a year or so ago that the rest of the world was looking upon COVID-free Australia and New Zealand with untold envy. Now, of course, it's us suffering the pangs of jealousy as life and travel brings back some normality, unsteady as it may be, overseas.

FREE, FREE AT LAST

If there's one benefit of being a vaccination laggard (Australia is still ranked at 33 - just up from 34 - out of 38 OECD nations for vaccinating its population) it's the realisation that the notion of "freedom days", a la the UK and Israeli mode, to mark the full relaxation of COVID measures, are ill-advised. Thankfully, Australia's return to normality, or a semblance of it, will be a slow and measured approach, with the fully vaccinated to be most rewarded. Anti-vaxxers will still be able to maintain their stances but, accept or not, they will be going nowhere, and we mean nowhere, even including domestic travel, fast. The world is now exclusively your fully-vaccinated-with-possible-booster oyster.

See also: Don't want a vaccine passport? Don't expect to travel again, anywhere

WE NEED TO LEARN TO LIVE WITH COVID ...

... and this will be no easy thing, seeing Delta is harder to live with than your worst-ever flatmate. Singapore, one of the true gold standard nations when it comes to managing COVID, has been averaging almost 500 new cases per day since it opened up its society after a highly successful vaccination roll-out. Fortunately it has recorded no deaths. Australia take note.

THE HOTEL BUFFET BREAKFAST IS DEAD. LEST WE FORGET

Fresh hot buffet tray with spoon to serve food scrambled eggs omelette in banquet, wedding, or restaurant inside for morning continental breakfast in hotel motel iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. buffet breakfast at hotel Traveller Letters October 17 2020

Photo: iStock

A year or so ago we marked the death of the hotel buffet, replaced by the more hygienic a la carte approach. Then it was on again and off again and, in a blow to gluttons, will probably be off again when travel finally resumes. Step back from the perspex sneeze guard and mask up.

See also: Killed by COVID-19, the hotel buffet has made a comeback

HOW THE WEST WAS LOST

Remember all those luxury Kimberley cruises we dreamed of taking last year when the concept of an open West Australian border seemed feasible? Perth itself used to be regarded as the most geographically isolated city on the planet. Now it's also become the most self-isolated city on earth. During the pandemic some Eastern Staters, who weren't unlucky enough to be mid-Nullarbor when Premier Mark McGowan (who was born in NSW, by the way) shut his borders, did manage to visit citadel WA. Now we're reminded of the lyrics to the famed Dame Vera Lynn classic from another global crisis: We'll meet again/Don't know where/Don't know when/But I know we'll meet again some sunny day. Frankly, though, we now stand a far better chance of being able to visit Perth, Scotland, in the foreseeable future, than Perth, Australia.

Anthony Dennis is the editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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