Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison has urged governments to accept a higher risk threshold of COVID-19 and learn to live with the virus as the travel industry nervously eyes the end of the JobKeeper wage subsidy in March.
Travel and tourism businesses have been heavily affected during the pandemic, and their recovery hinges on repairing fragile consumer confidence that has been shattered due to repeated state border closures at short notice.
Ms Harrison said governments must relax their strategy to adopt a higher risk tolerance of COVID.
"Somewhere along the way it went to eradication and that was never the intention," she told a travel industry symposium held by Nine, the publisher of this website, at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday.
"I think we have a job to do to move public opinion from being that we must live in a COVID-zero environment to living in a COVID-normal environment where we live with this thing.
"Politicians are reflective of their constituents. They are listening to their medical advisors, but they're also listening to public opinion.
"If constituents are happy living with a higher level of risk, then I think there would be more imprimatur for the states and for the federal government to be a little bit less reactive."
Ms Harrison said vaccines would be important but they shouldn't be viewed through the prism of eradication.
"The vaccines will only work ... [and] we will only open up if we accept that there will be COVID in this community," she said.
Qantas chief marketing officer Jo Boundy said there must be "a national consistent approach to borders" because the constantly changing restrictions are creating too much uncertainty.
"People actually aren't so worried about the health and safety of travelling any more. It's about flexibility and disruption," she said.
Ms Harrison said recent Tourism Australia research shows people are more worried about becoming stranded due to snap border closures than they are about contracting the virus while travelling.
Travel industry leaders insist underlying demand for travel remains strong but the constant uncertainty and surprise retrospective border restrictions are destroying that appetite.
Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, said hard borders have "big implications" and confidence is hard to rebuild once it's lost.
"The travel industry can live with this virus, we just need a level playing field and some sanity around border arrangements," he said.
"The cliff is coming very quickly now with the end of JobKeeper [on March 28]."
Mr Westaway said closing borders after a handful of COVID cases was like "trying to crush a walnut with a sledgehammer".
"We're not getting levels of community transmission to justify a hard border closure, we're just not."
Sarina Bratton, chairman of luxury cruise company Ponant, said the present mindset towards COVID-19 has "changed our thinking" about travel.
"We've basically lost a lot of control of our lives," she said. "It's diminished a lot. And governments have got far more control."
Ms Boundy said Qantas has an internal document detailing the latest border restrictions.
"We're up to version 182 of the border manual, to give you a sense of the complexity that creates for tourism," she said.