Australia has to rapidly pivot its international reputation as the world's COVID-19 lockdown capital to being, as a consequence, one of the world's safest countries, in order to stand any chance of wooing back overseas visitors, experts say.
While research shows there's huge pent-up demand for people wanting to come to Australia, most potential foreign travellers fear they could be caught out by sudden border closures and locked in on our shores.
"We've got to get on the front foot and go down the PR route – talking to overseas journalists and bringing them here – and explain our governments' behaviour and how it's made Australia a safer, and better, place for international tourists," says media analyst Steve Allen, director of strategy and research at Pearman.
"Older travellers are still nervous about vaccination rates and they're more cautious about going overseas. So we have to really make them understand why we were so cautious too, and how it's going to benefit them."
Publicising our position near the top of the international table in vaccine uptake would also be wise, says Anne Wild, managing director of travel marketing specialists Anne Wild & Associates.
"Much of the global research we are seeing shows concerns around health and safety still remain a barrier to travel for many," she says. "So promoting Australia from a safety point of view, including our quality health care system in case something does go wrong, will certainly help build confidence."
But Australia also has to simplify the whole testing requirement regime, says Robbie Cornelius, of tourism marketing firm Dr Tourism.
"People just won't come if they have to work through all the confusion about what they need to do, and then jump over a lot of hurdles to get here," he says. "We need any testing regime to be as clear and as easy as possible."
In the last financial year before the pandemic hit, Australia had 9.3 million international visitors, according to Tourism Australia, an increase of three per cent over the previous year. They spent $44.6 billion in 2018/9, five per cent more than in the previous 12 months.
So even though Tourism Australia pivoted over the past 18 months to instead push local destinations for domestic tourists, it was still working behind the scenes with its 15 offices and agencies around the world to keep people overseas inspired by the idea of visiting us.
It created a series of social media videos with 8D sound to create audio-visual experiences of Australia, which attracted more than 200 million views. It also made several live crosses in a ''With Love From Oz" campaign which highlighted local experiences, such as an Indigenous welcome to country. An online Australian specialist training program for 32,000 agents ended up being taken by 80,000.
"We weren't running commercials or selling airline tickets; we just wanted to keep inspiring people to dream and plan for their next Australian holiday," says Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison. "It was really important to keep people thinking and focusing on Australia when they were a captive audience.
"Our research has shown there's huge pent-up demand for Australian travel. Although we don't expect to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024/5, people are looking past the noise of the lockdowns and seeing us as a safe destination, with quality experiences, beautiful nature, wide open spaces and friendly people."
One London partner, the travel company Trailfinders, decided to start selling tickets early for January to March 2022. They had 300 bookings in their first weekend.
But marketing strategist Toby Ralph says even all the negative publicity over Australia becoming a "police state" with border lockdowns and a dismal environmental record can, somewhat surprisingly, be turned into a positive. "While there's no shortage of Americans who hate the idea of our lockdowns, there are doubtless many others who envy the safety we offer," he says.
"We could tell them: 'Holiday in Australia. You are 31 times more likely to die from COVID in the US than you are in Australia', or 'you are 1678 times more likely to die from COVID at home than in Queensland'. Extreme adventurers are another segment. We can offer them danger: Are you ballsy enough to visit Victoria, with half of all COVID infections and nearly two thirds of the deaths?
"Even climate change is both a problem and opportunity, so we can tell tourists to come and see the reef before it comes to grief."
The tourist priority, however, should be attracting backpackers and international students to the country, to help staff our tourism recovery, says Greg Daniel, the former chair of Australasia's largest advertising and marketing firm, the Clemenger Group, and a former board member of Tourism Australia.
We also needed to re-open as a nation, as the closure of state borders was simply fuelling uncertainty, he said. "The intransigence of some states is really hurting the national economy in that people from elsewhere in the world are genuinely worried that, if they come here, they might not be able to get out again," he says.
"That's especially business travellers, and also families. So we need to introduce rapid antigen testing to relieve concerns that they won't risk getting locked up. The Government should also be incentivising some of the airlines to start flying here as there aren't enough seats and we need to kick-start the momentum."
Former Tourism Australia managing director John O'Sullivan, now chief executive of Experience Co, also feels that some of the barriers to travel here need to be removed. "We have to make it as easy as possible to travel to Australia within a COVID environment," he said. "And the harder it is, the more unlikely it is for people to come."