International travel to Australia: Why opening our borders to inbound tourists should be a priority

Australians always like to win, we love to feel that we're up there mixing it with the rest of the world. So did you almost catch yourself celebrating recently when you saw graphs of our COVID-19 cases compared with the Earth's worst-affected countries and noticed we have been skyrocketing towards the top.

Almost. Of course, there's no reason to mark this victory with anything other than concern. We were once owners of one of the world's lowest rates of COVID-19; now we're going through the same crisis much of the rest of the world has experienced, only several years later and with the huge added benefit of an almost-complete vaccination program.

There was always going to be a bump when we rejoined the world. When we opened the borders after years of hiding away and allowed families to reunite, loved ones to leave and arrive, the world of travel to recommence, cases were always going to rise here. That was an accepted consequence.

Few people probably expected it to go the way it has, to rise so sharply thanks to a new variant, but unless you're in Western Australia, what's done is now done. COVID-19 is here, and we can only hope we're passed the peak.

Still, that has allowed movement again. It has allowed us to feel part of the world again. It has given Australians the opportunity to travel overseas for leisure, if they so desire, to go to Europe and North America and Asia and just have fun, to stay in hotels and visit attractions and navigate this new world and enjoy it.

Funny thing is though, we haven't reciprocated. Australians are allowed to visit plenty of countries around the world right now as tourists (even though some may be growing increasingly wary of us). We can holiday in a heap of places.

But who can holiday here? Singaporeans can. Japanese, South Korean and New Zealand residents can, though re-entry requirements into their home countries make the prospect of a short holiday in Australia unlikely. Aside from that though, inbound international tourism is still on hold, which, as we watch our COVID-19 cases match the rest of the world, is making increasingly little sense.

Surely, it's time to properly open the borders. Even just for the sake of those in Australia who have been left behind by current restrictions, restrictions many of us think have been entirely dropped. Those living here on bridging visas still have to apply for special dispensation to leave the country and then be allowed back in. And for what? To keep us safe? Come on.

For governments who like to point out that they're concerned with the economy, there's a huge economic driver that they're missing here: inbound international tourism. This is a sector that was worth $45.4 billion a year before the pandemic (with almost half of that spent in regional areas), and was an industry that directly employed five per cent of the entire Australian workforce, with plenty more indirectly supported.

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And yet, it still hasn't returned. Why? Why can't foreigners come here for a holiday? If they have to be vaccinated and do pre-departure testing in the same way as those who can enter the country right now – citizens, permanent residents and other eligible visa holders, plus their immediate family – then what is the difference?

It's not as if we're suddenly going to get COVID-19 here. We've got it. And with the current wave seeming to have peaked, and inbound tourist numbers likely to be negligible to begin with anyway – particularly given warnings about coming to Australia – our hospital systems are unlikely to be put under significant extra strain.

In return, we get the world coming back to Australia. We get to give the hundreds of thousands of people here whose lives depend on international tourism a break, finally. Some good news.

The tourism industry is obviously struggling, and it's about to get even more difficult in the next few weeks. School holidays will end soon, and domestic tourism is going to drop off a cliff. Already what should have been a boom time has been affected by the Omicron wave, but once we hit February and March, it's going to become seriously difficult.

Now, surely, is the time to end restrictions that make no sense. Who are we saving here? What are we gaining? Very little, if anything.

Wouldn't it be great to give a vital industry a boost, while also welcoming the world back to our shores, to hear foreign accents again, to reconnect, to end the isolation, to regain a sense of normality?

We've all done the hard yards in Australia. We've made sacrifices, we've locked down, we've protected each other, we've limited movement. But we have no reason to fear the world anymore, particularly if vaccination and testing requirements for inbound visitors remain in place.

This would feel like a real victory – one we could actually be proud of.

See also: Yes, we will be travelling in 2022 - here's how to do it

See also: Travelling during the pandemic? Here's what you need to pack

Do you think Australia's borders should be open to inbound tourism? Should this be a priority in Australia, or something we can leave for later?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

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