Australia border closures and COVID-19: We risk becoming a hermit kingdom

It's been a long time between drink breaks since an Australian tennis star won his or her own Australian Open, which some detractors now want closed, but the odds firm by the day, if not the hour, for Australia to clinch another less-coveted title.

The revelation from Brendan Murphy, the erstwhile federal chief medical officer now health department secretary, that Australians will be unlikely to be able to travel overseas until next year, risks Australia becoming the hermit kingdom of the western world.

But Australians being unable to take a holiday abroad is only part of the problem. The worrying corollary for the multi-billion dollar international and domestic tourism industry, and therefore the national economy, is that overseas tourists will be unable to visit here, unless they are sports identities or movie stars.

Who is to say that this time next year the number of COVID-19 cases overseas will meet Australia's exacting public health standards, particularly since the distribution of vaccines around the world has been faltering at best and is yet to even commence in Australia?

For Australia, protective of its hard-won COVID-19 gains, it may well be that it will be difficult to kick-start much, if any, outbound or inbound travel for much of 2022 let alone 2021.

At least allowing foreign tennis players to enter Australia has demonstrated some willingness to connect with the rest of the world, recognising that at some point the nation must fully emerge from its fortress, as the painfully parochial and politicised West Australian leadership loves to describe their own state.

Of course, the Chinese, along no doubt with the world's tennis powerbrokers, would love to host a grand slam in Shanghai or Beijing at Australia's expense, something Victorian Premier Dan Andrews insinuated when raising the risk of losing the contracted Australian Open should it fail to be staged.

However, the list of contradictions by governments surrounding travel in and out of Australia is getting as long as the list of demands by Novak Djokovic (not merely an anti-vaxxer but someone who, along with his wife, tested positive himself for COVID-19 last June).

Not only is it difficult, if not impossible, for expatriate Australians to return home, or for international students to come back, the notion of a travel bubble with New Zealand, one of the few hopes for overseas travel, is looking unlikely.

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It may not happen unless there's an agreement for it to be conducted with selected states and not the country as a whole due to the propensity for controllable COVID-19 spot fires in jurisdictions such as NSW.

Meanwhile, the nation's desperate agricultural sector, albeit its own worst enemy in terms of exploitation and underpayment of workers, can't convince the states to allow in additional seasonal workers from Pacific nations where the incidence of COVID-19 cases has ranged between nil and negligible.

Without inbound international tourists, there's a potential loss of $60.8 billion to the national economy.

Lucrative Chinese tourists, known for their extravagant spending, are unlikely to ever return, with relations between Australia and China frostier than even those between Nick Kyrgios and chair umpires. That's nearly $12 billion per annum wiped from the national ledger.

Such a mess. The least that our state and territory governments can do in the meantime is to find a way to keep their borders open to allow domestic tourism to operate uninterrupted. Much of the $65 billion that Australians would have spent on international travel during the pandemic is yet to filter into the coffers of the domestic tourism sector.

Indeed, for most Australians, the obvious rejoinder to the federal government's well-intended entreaty, "holiday here this year" is "sure, but where and when and will I get stuck?" State governments have managed the pandemic extremely well but have made a hash of the tourism industry, which by some estimates employs up to 1 million Australians.

If governments and their medical advisors fail to find a way out of the corner into which they have increasingly painted the country, Australia will be able to pride itself on being among the few nations to have controlled the virus while simultaneously being too fearful and timid to step forth from its own COVID-19 cul-de-sac.

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

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