It's been less than a week since international travel recommenced with a blast as loud as a French president's impromptu revenge presser and already it's becoming clear who are the winners and losers from this major pandemic milestone.
There are some obvious winners such as Australia (sorry, make that what you could call Greater Australia, meaning NSW, Victoria and the ACT) and losers in the form of the remaining laggard states and territories, some of which have made positive moves to reopen.
Then there's the formidable Qantas PR machine, more powerful than a test hangar full of Rolls Royce jet engines and the federal government's passport office, what with all those fees for lapsed documents and a refusal to refund for Australians' abject inability to use them in nearly two years. But, in a heady week, it doesn't end there, as the following list illustrates.
It's a total swab fest out there, people, with the principal beneficiaries being diagnostic specialists, as they are known. Forget the days of freebie COVID tests, at least for overseas travel, as countries like Singapore are insisting on the use of recognised independent laboratories. That means overseas travellers have to outlay hundreds of dollars on mandatory tests for even a week-long trip, with the costs for a family of three well into the $1500-plus mark. Tests with results within an hour are even more expensive, meaning even more bulging coffers for the pathology fraternity.
LOSERS International travellers
Goodbye budget travel, and perhaps family holidays, at least for now, as the cost of an overseas holiday skyrockets due to the cost of those aforementioned compulsory swabs. Something will eventually have to give if international travel is to be revived beyond the initial euphoria. Let's hope a rapid, cheaper and less invasive test that's as accurate as the PCR equivalent is developed sooner rather than later. Travel insurance, or at least the obtaining of it, also remains a decidedly vexed issue for international travellers, with a conspicuously scant number of insurers (who once revelled in the handsome profits from such policies) willing to provide comprehensive COVID cover.
For a country at the crossroads of the Asia-Pacific and a major global transport hub, a heavily-vaccinated Singapore realised that it had to re-emerge and re-engage with the world, despite a surge in COVID cases. On Monday, the first flight - Singapore Airlines' SQ212 between Australia and Singapore - under the latter nation's bold Vaccinated Travel Lanes scheme will take off from Sydney at 9.05 am.
LOSER New Zealand
Don't get us wrong. We 110 per cent pure love New Zealand as a destination. But the Kiwis are stuck in a COVID cul-de-sac of their own cautious construction, waiting for the right, and safest, time to re-emerge to the world. Singapore and Fiji, and perhaps others soon such as Bali, have pre-empted New Zealand and opened up to Australia, the tourism-dependent nation's most important market. Kiwi tourism will eventually recover and be able to exploit its safe destination status, provided international tourists can be assured that they can visit and not be embroiled in any sudden and extended lockdown.
WINNER The cruise industry
Defying the pandemic odds, cruising is back in a big way overseas with Australians, far from being apprehensive about this controversial form of travel, helping to book out a large proportion of cruises in 2022. Cruise devotees are confident that the industry has done its utmost to address the threat of COVID on and off their ships and appear willing to accept a level of inherent risk that is going to exist around all forms of travel for the foreseeable future.
LOSER The cruise industry
Surely the cruise industry has been punished enough by governments which share, at the least, some of the blame for those early and admittedly disastrous shipboard outbreaks. Cruise lines, and for that matter Australians who avowedly still adore cruising, continue to sweat on the federal government granting permission for large passenger ships to sail again in Australian waters. The other problem confronting the industry here is the reluctance of insurers to provide cover for cruise-takers, even though the industry has arguably done more than any part of tourism to address its health deficiencies with, thus far, relatively few onboard cases having been detected on ships overseas.
WINNERS Expat Australians
It's been like binging on Love Actually (or at least the famous airport opening scene sequence and sans the soppy Hugh Grant monologue) as hundreds, if not thousands, are reunited with loved ones. Many expats probably still feel like losers (see below), having been subject to a world-first lockout of Australian citizens abroad. It's been a betrayal that few will easily forget and something of an ominous warning of how much, if at all, Australians can rely on their own, at times, uncompromising federal government should they get into strife.
LOSERS Non-citizen visa-holders
It's a little complicated but, in contrast to those expats, non-citizen visa holders, or temporary residents in Australia can't yet leave the country. Under the prevailing regulations, they wouldn't be allowed to return to Australia. In what's been described as an "endless waiting game", an estimated 1.6 million migrants, vital to the present and future of the skills-starved national economy and desperate to reunite with their nearest and dearest back home, remain affected by the impasse.
WINNERS Singaporean tourists
In a reciprocal move between governments, fully-vaccinated Singaporeans will be allowed to visit Australia, quarantine-free from November 21, making them the first international tourists to be allowed to visit Australia for 20 months or more. NSW and Victoria, keen to see inbound foreign travellers fill up those starkly empty CBD hotel rooms, will be the main winners, but some Singaporeans may delay a visit until the likes of a sunny Queensland opens to them as well.
LOSERS The rest of the world's tourists
Despite the beleaguered travel industry being in a collective foetal position, a cautious government has adopted a characteristic "it's not a race" approach to resuscitating international tourism. The return of Singaporeans is a start, and will make a difference, but if the mostly ignored multi-billion dollar visitor economy is to be saved, more international tourism will be needed and soon. Worryingly for Australian tourism, the reopening of the industry coincides with a point at which Australia's international image is arguably at its lowest ebb since the days of the rise of One Nation.
Anthony Dennis is the editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.