When, and if, overseas travel resumes by Christmas, as per the vaunted Qantas plan to resume international flights, Australians will discover a whole new world of onerous regulations destined to make overseas holidays far more complex and stressful.
The airline recently announced that from mid-December its overseas flights would restart from Australia for fully vaccinated Australians to COVID-safe destinations. The countries identified by Qantas, pending government approval, include Singapore, the US, Japan, the UK, Canada and Fiji, though even some of the destinations on the Qantas list, such as Japan, may not be ready to open to overseas tourists by then.
Despite an announcement this week by the federal tourism Minister, Dan Tehan, that he expects the international border to reopen by Christmas "at the latest", the lack of guidance and detail around the reopening has led to slow bookings by Australians, according to Tom Manwaring, chair of the Australian Federal of Travel Agents (AFTA).
"Rebuilding the travel industry is not going to just require a flick of a switch," he says. "It's time for the medical bureaucrats to get out of the way as we're an industry that desperately needs this reopening to work and for Australians to be able to book travel with the sort of confidence they did in 2019."
Brett Jardine, managing director of the Council of Australia Tour Operators, says his organisation is also still waiting on an official plan from the government.
"It makes it difficult for our members to service their clients confidently and fully with approved information, in order to prepare for recovery," he says. "We need clarity on which countries we are opening to and when, to be able to prepare our businesses and work with our international partners."
What is known is that late 2021 and 2022, in practical terms, are going to be little like 2019 for travellers. When Australians do depart for overseas they will do so armed with special vaccine passports, housed within a phone app. They are set to become as vital, and far more utilised day-to-day on any trip, when compared to the traditional paper variety. In the event you don't own a smartphone, now would be an ideal time to buy one and fully understand how to operate it before you leave.
Travellers will also need to carefully coordinate the timing of compulsory pre-departure COVID-19 tests and results before departure. Importantly, Australians will need to be fully conversant with the differing regulations for the destinations on the Qantas route list.
Furthermore, by the time many Australians do travel overseas, some jurisdictions may require proof of a vaccine booster dose while others are requiring proof of travel insurance.
Here is an outline, based what we know so far, regarding travel to the destinations identified by Qantas as the most likely to be permitted for visits by Australians. While Qantas plans to restart these routes in December, it should be noted that some airlines, such as Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines and Delta are already flying some of these routes, albeit under the strict passengers caps imposed by the hotel quarantine system.
Unless there's a change in policy, Australians could face significant additional expenses when visiting or holidaying in Singapore. Travellers from Germany and Brunei, who have recently been involved in a "green lane", quarantine-free trial for fully-vaccinated travellers, are currently required to take, and pay for, three COVID tests - one on arrival, one on day three and another on day five, as well as a pre-departure test. As they stand, these requirements are set to add at least hundreds of dollars in additional expense for those visiting Singapore. The heavily-vaccinated island state remains a leader in COVID management and containment but one that has also been suffering a sizeable and concerning increase in positive cases number in the past few week since it attempted a reopening.
The on-again, off-again trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand has been suspended until at least November 19. However, the Kiwis' continued pursuit of a COVID-19 elimination strategy in the face of the more contagious Delta variant has created doubt as to exactly how and when it will be able to reopen safely to Australia and other destinations for quarantine-free travel. Only 40 per cent of tourism-dependent New Zealand's eligible population are fully vaccinated compared with 48.5 per cent in Australia.
A developing country heavily reliant on tourism revenue, Fiji is racing to be able to reopen its borders to holidaymakers in time for the resumption of travel from its main market of Australia before Christmas. Fiji, which until recently suffered from the highest per capita infection rates in the world, has been urgently vaccinating frontline workers who are mostly likely to come in contact with tourists when its borders finally reopen. Watch this space.
Canada, with the recent return of the Liberals headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is taking no chances with its reopening to overseas tourism, with all forms of federally operated public transport, such as aircraft, trains and cruise ships, being subject to a vaccine mandate. All federal public servants and other frontline workers will be required to be fully vaccinated. With one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Canada may prove to be a far safer and easier-to-navigate destination to visit for Australians than its neighbour across the border.
The European Union nominates only 13 countries, including Australia, as safe travel nations. Tellingly the US controversially did not make the cut, due to its high infection rates and vaccine resistance. Popular European destinations like France, Italy and Greece have already introduced the strict use of health passes for many types of enclosed venues, including restaurants, with heavy penalties for businesses who fail to comply with the regulations.
The US has announced it will lift COVID-19 travel restrictions to allow fully vaccinated passengers from the UK and most European Union countries to travel into the country from early November. This augurs well for a return of prospective Australian visitors to the US, however, Astrazeneca, a vaccine of choice for millions of Australians, has not yet been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Australians accustomed to practising a high level of COVID-19 compliance such as mask-wearing back home may well encounter some hostility in states with low levels of vaccination.
The UK recently abandoned expensive PCR tests for travellers in favour of the cheaper, though somewhat less accurate rapid antigen tests, after its tourism industry complained that travellers were being deterred from taking holidays by the added expense. Unlike parts of Europe, officials in England have baulked at vaccine passports for attending certain venues, with differing COVID regulations applying to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, potentially complicating travel for Australians.
Once considered a model nation for its management of COVID, Japan has been struggling with a surge of cases this year before and after the Tokyo Olympics. Uncertainty and confusion around the country's full reopening to tourism prevails but when it occurs it will doubtless be to nations, such as Australia, that are considered COVID-safe. Many of the typical COVID travel requirements such as pre-departure testing that apply in other countries will also likely be adopted in Japan, which expects 60 per cent of its population to be fully vaccinated by the end of this month.
Anthony Dennis is the editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.