Australia international borders: We risk becoming the laughing stock of world travel

Opinion

Aside from notching up more tests than Allan Border, one of the biggest challenges of our first overseas trips for almost two years may be trying to explain Australia's conduct during the pandemic to the people you meet along the way (let's reverse park climate change, for now, shall we?).

I experienced such a moment recently when I was invited, in my capacity as a non-travelling travel editor, to explain Australia's rather impressionistic plan to finally reopen its international borders to an overseas audience, for the World Business Report on the venerable BBC World Service.

Even if you point to Australia's death toll from COVID-19 being, along with that of New Zealand, among the lowest per capita on the planet, it can still be hard to explain to an incredulous world how our federated state and territory borders system works and doesn't.

You begin by explaining that the two most populous states not only closed to each other but also to five other states and territories. (Don't even try and elucidate further on Western Australia or Queensland as no radio interview spot anywhere is long enough).

It's also difficult for those overseas to fathom how tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have been unable to return to their homeland for the duration of the pandemic for the sake of the greater good. This is a great facet of the Australian character that is hard for others to understand (the odd Scandinavian, perhaps sans the Swedish, may comprehend it).

Perhaps I should have also stressed in the interview that Australia's belated border reopening is several months late due to the clumsy procurement of vaccines by our authorities. But I did manage to inject the point that this reopening is, despite the hoopla, only a partial one.

The apparent incredulity on the other end of the line in London continued when the British interviewer asked me if the border reopening announcement meant he could now visit Australia and see its considerable sights?

Well, yes, I replied. Sort of. Maybe. As long as he and any companions are fully vaccinated and are prepared to quarantine for seven days and foot the bill. Oh, and for the foreseeable future you'll likely only be able to travel within NSW and possibly Victoria.

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Perhaps by the time he is able to visit, quarantine mandates will have been abandoned as completely unworkable. The fact is, few tourists are going to come to Australia and sacrifice a week of their lives in quarantine, especially when most people overseas receive half or even less annual leave than we antipodeans enjoy, as leaders of the tourism and aviation industries have pointed out.

Australia remains a fabulous destination but most other nations have decided that if you're open for tourism, it needs to mean precisely that, with as few strings attached as possible.

The dilemma in trying to explain Australia's COVID-19 border policies wasn't helped when, a few days later, in one of these "uh oh" moments to which we've become accustomed, our federal tourism minister declared international tourists would be able to return to Australia by December, only to be overruled by the Prime Minister who said that they wouldn't be allowed back until at least March.

That's more than four months away - there may not be much of a tourism industry left by then. Clearly, we've now returned to another "it's not a race" scenario, despite the fact that before the pandemic the total expenditure of international visitors was worth almost $61 billion to the national economy, more or less the equivalent of coal. It also employs as many as 30 times more Australians as the coal industry, and a good many of them in regional areas.

Tourism-generating major events, and Australia's ability to run them, is another area of concern. It looks like the Ashes series will go ahead over summer following tense and protracted negotiations between England and Australia teams and doubt remains around the Australian Open tennis early next year. 

Already the England netball team abandoned a tour to Australia, largely due to the requirement to quarantine even if fully-vaccinated. And few, if any, top-ranked overseas tennis players will be prepared to quarantine a second year in a row (some also refuse to be vaccinated), especially when so many heavily-vaccinated countries have already opened up in an attempt to put COVID behind them. (The approaching northern hemisphere winter may prove to be the first big test of these strategies).

Australian Open tennis organisers in Melbourne will fight hard to stage the event, amid speculation that the Chinese have been coveting a grand slam tournament of their own for years.

No wonder the bruised, battered and barely upright tourism industry, particularly international airlines, are confused and frustrated by the lack of a transparent plan. It doesn't help that, when compared to, say, the coal equivalent, tourism is a fragmented industry without a proper united voice. Even now it struggles to be taken truly seriously in political and media circles.

Australia used to be a country that worried too much about what the rest of the world thought of it. Now we tend to be too little concerned about the wellbeing of our international image across not only tourism but a spectrum of issues.

We may well end up having the last laugh on the world in COVID terms, but meanwhile we risk becoming the laughing stock of world travel until we get our tourism story straight.  The world to which we reach out for visitor dollars will move right on without us - that's if it hasn't done so already.

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

See also: Travellers and expats won't forget how quickly Australia abandoned them

See also: Holiday here? No thanks, I've had enough of Australia

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