Australia international border closures: Here's how we reopen Australia to the world

The pressure is now on. After having successfully evaded the issue of Australia's firmly shut borders (or, more pointedly, how best to prise them open), the federal government's chaotic management of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution program has focused renewed attention on when and where we'll be able to travel abroad.

There's momentum developing to stop Australia, a country perceived as geographically isolated long before the pandemic, from becoming a hermit nation, cut off, largely by choice, from the rest of the world.

Clearly Australia risks being seen as having won the fight against COVID-19 but having lost the war to defeat it and to resume some semblance of normality.

We love Australia and we love travelling in it. But many of us don't want to "holiday here" every year and certainly not forever. What would I know? Well, what would the politicians know, based on their inertia on borders? Here, for what it's worth, is my five-point border buster action plan.

HATCH A PLAN. ANY PLAN

Unless the government is concealing one, there is no clear plan to open borders let alone a group established to realise it. It's vital we respect medical advice (look where it got Trump for failing to) but epidemiologists, as much as we respect them, will always find a reason for us to remain closed to the rest of the world.

Enough of the disingenuous, "we may, possibly, potentially, open up to Singapore/Japan/South Korea/Tajikistan at some point/juncture/safe time" nonsense from federal ministers such as tourism minister Dan Tehan.

Let's be realistic. Japan is simply not a viable travel bubble candidate as it is recording literally thousands of positive COVID-19 cases each week and it may not be a place Australians can travel to for quite some time. Ditto South Korea. Sad but true as both are fantastic destinations.

Better, the emphasis should initially be on the small number of COVID-19-safe destinations in our region such as Singapore, Vietnam, the various Pacific nations (where an increasingly serious humanitarian imperative exists) and Taiwan, as problematic as the last one may be, what with Chinese bombers buzzing provocatively above it.

(Before you get too excited about a holiday to the Stans, the Tajikistan president's declaration that his country has been COVID-free since January is somewhat suspicious).

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SET UP A TOURISM RECOVERY TASK FORCE WITH TEETH

Establish a high-profile government-backed group of eminent travel industry leaders (including those from the noticeably ostracised cruise sector) to immediately form a tourism and borders recovery task force (TBRT).

Its role would be to examine ways and means to safely open our borders and to identify and work with the most viable international destinations. And we wouldn't want the TBRT to lock itself away for a year before a bubble like the trans-Tasman one materialises.

It would need to be a high-profile entity that communicates directly to the public, not just through the government and its health officials. The TBRT should also be responsible for identifying safe and achievable ways for stranded Australians to return home and for others to visit loved ones overseas.

START WORK ON AN INTERCONNECTED ASIA-PACIFIC BUBBLE

We get it. It's going to be difficult to resume travel to Europe and North America in the short or even medium term. Therefore the focus. as stated earlier, should be firmly on the region that has enjoyed the most success in the world in respect to the containment of the virus: the Asia-Pacific.

The nations that form it have the advantage of being a single, less than half-day flight from Australia. Approved travellers within the bubble should be able to travel between designated COVID-19 safe nations, not just a single destination.

In a somewhat blasé country devoid of community-transmitted COVID-19, the introduction of vaccine passports will at least serve - with travel as the incentive - to mobilise more Australians to get vaccinated, whenever those vaccinations might become available.

MAKE TRANS-TASMAN A DOMESTIC ROUTE 

The trans-Tasman bubble, even if there are one or two false-starts, presents an ideal opportunity to transform the route into a quasi-domestic one. There have been attempts to achieve this over the years, including by former Australian and New Zealand PMs Kevin Rudd and John Key. All attempts have been vanquished.

But for the citizens of both nations, having the ability to fly to and from both countries via domestic terminals and with less red tape would be a boon for tourism as well as trade, especially since it will be a considerable time before foreign inbound tourists return to both markets (and perhaps never for the lucrative Chinese market).

REWARD THE STATES AND TERRITORIES WITH THE BEST BORDER POLICIES

You can't manage international borders if you can't sensibly manage your own internal borders. And, okay, I admit it. This measure is quite the ambit claim (even more so than the other four). Tourism Australia, the federal government's official travel booster, has enjoyed a whopping budget in 2020-21of $231.6 million to drive the recovery of tourism during the pandemic via "strategic marketing initiatives".

Forget marginal federal seats as the yardstick, as targeted in the half-price fares campaign. Expenditure of TA's handsome budget on promotion and other support could be dictated by the various states and territories based on their border management record.

According to this formula, it would mean New South Wales would receive overwhelmingly the most funding and Western Australian the least, closely followed by Queensland. Improved border performance would result in increased federal funding and support. But how much the government of a resources rich state like WA truly values tourism is sadly questionable.

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

See also: Travel insurers start offering COVID-19 cover, but there's a (major) catch

See also: 'Flyer beware': Travel bubble or not, a holiday in NZ still risky

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