Australia international borders: We take Australia, and the privilege of travel, for granted

"If you never leave Australia again, you'll be just fine," I wrote – somewhat presciently – for an article in Traveller exactly three years ago.

"Hop in the car or jump on a train, bus or plane and set out to discover your own backyard. From your hometown's street art and bushwalks to epic road trips like the Gibb River Road and the Nullarbor Plain, the fantastical landscape of Lake Mungo and the swirling silken waters of the Whitsundays Islands, you'll find that Australia is a world within itself."

Though I've long since ticked off these destinations from the list, I'd happily give them another whirl when we're eventually allowed to travel. It took a pandemic, curiously enough, to convince many of my compatriots to do the same.

With overseas travel rudely circumscribed, it was bemusing to observe locals discovering destinations that had been there all along. Pent-up wanderlust manifested in crowded country streets, empty car-hire lots and "no vacancy" signs. In the NSW Central West town of Orange I met a purveyor who'd moved there from Sydney a decade earlier, "before the region became trendy".

"Now the whole of Sydney seems to be here," he said irritably.

I could well imagine the frustration among tourism operators once overlooked in favour of more exotic (read: foreign) destinations and now overrun by travellers who'd run out of options. Many well-travelled residents, it seemed, were somewhat unworldly when it came to their own backyard.

Indeed, if the pandemic revealed anything, it wasn't the nation's collective love of adventure and impulse for exploration (characteristics which are in fact universal), but the determination to invoke – the minute borders reopen – that Australian birthright: a ticket out of here. Moreover, it had underscored the entitlement among many for whom Australia exists as a home-base and the world a boundless playground (with welcome mat always laid out).

As an immigrant, this "home-base" has always been exotic to me. Which is just as well: when I moved here two decades ago with my young family, every available resource was funnelled into building a new life, and so overseas holidays were out of the question. Instead, we lashed camping gear to the roof of our hatchback and headed off into the great unknown, laying down footprints and fostering Australian memories for our foreign-born children.

People would tell us we'd seen more of their country than they had, and often this was true (of course there are many Aussies who know their country intimately, and others who haven't had much opportunity to travel at all); they'd also insist, oddly, that such long car journeys wouldn't be tolerated by their own children, even as they sealed them inside veritable metal tubes for the 30-hour flight to Europe. I wondered about all those Aussie kids who'd grow up knowing more about the back country of Chamonix or Whistler than the back of Bourke.

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My outsider's perspective – forged by a South African childhood in which international holidays were unheard of and "going abroad" meant driving to Swaziland or Bophuthatswana – has amplified the contradictions in my adopted compatriots' attitude towards international travel. As the gloss fades from holidays at home and politicians talk of reopening those borders, the apparent lack of reflection is acute: travel is taken for granted as a rite of passage in Australia; that recipients of this privilege are able to visit places where no such rite (or rights, even) exists goes largely unremarked.

This global mobility is facilitated by fundamentals which those critical of the nation would do well to acknowledge: representative democracy and economic stability. Yes, injustices aplenty have been enacted within these parameters (most pertinently against those citizens shut out of the country during the pandemic); but in the absence of such progressive foundations Aussies would find themselves – like the citizens of so many countries they love to explore – locked down not only by COVID but by socio-political circumstance and functionally useless passports.

Such first world expectations are appropriate given we live in the first world, some might say. Not quite: the spoils of this existence – such as travel – are often reaped in the so-called "third world" (developing world or global south); this alone gives us a clue as to the comparative freedoms we enjoy. After all, we haven't been paying attention on our travels if we've failed to comprehend our position in the global hierarchy.

Bungled though much of Australia's pandemic response has been, its characterisation by some itchy-footed commentators as a dictatorship is not only an affront to those people – among them migrants to this country – who've suffered under actual totalitarian regimes; it also downplays the immense privileges one accrues by virtue of being Australian: an economy that affords us the resources to travel, a passport powerful enough to admit us visa-free into 185 countries, and bilateral agreements which enable us to relocate abroad on study exchanges, gap years or for a simple change of scenery – a courtesy few foreigners, and those from the "third world" especially, can enjoy in return.

No, Aussies won't need to scale a wall or dodge bullets in order to escape their "prison"; there was never any question, despite the rhetoric, that we'd eventually be allowed to travel again (let's hope everyone has had equal access to vaccinations by then, and our community's most vulnerable are adequately protected). Those who can't abide the thought of crossing the Nullarbor Plain or driving to Lake Mungo (because they're bored with Australia or are boycotting WA's "Nazi" premier) can head overseas instead (where, hopefully, their presence won't tax the many nations still buckled by the pandemic).

The rest of us might linger awhile, contemplating the fallout from what has surely been the most catastrophic event of our generation. And we will remember this priceless lesson from our own foreign travels: the world is a village, and we live on its most prosperous street.

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

See also: The golden age of travel is over for millennials

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