Novak Djokovic Australian Open entry debacle harms Australia's international reputation and tourism

Opinion

As a middle power nation of almost 26 million, Australia has long enjoyed an ability to punch above its weight. But the pandemic has served to expose us as a country with a propensity to just punch out, mostly indiscriminately.

Through a litany of draconian policies and forthright statements - you'll most likely know most of them - we have lately managed to offend an uncanny number of countries, including China, France, New Zealand and now Serbia, a country from which we've drawn tens of thousands of new citizens.

You could easily add to that list the US in the way it was embarrassed by Australia's nuclear falling out with the French. "Australian diplomacy" has become a candidate for oxymoron of the year.

As a small and geographically distant nation, Australia once struggled to comprehensively craft an international image but now we seem to be suffering a full-blown image crisis. The "arse-end of the world", a term attributed to Paul Keating, now risks becoming a nation of arses.

That once likeable brashness, embodied by the Paul Hogan tourism advertisements decades ago, now feels a liability and we delude ourselves if we think we're universally loved abroad. Australia likes to point to its success in managing COVID-19 through a series of ruthless measures surpassed by few countries, including communist China, even though we've now emerged as "COVID central", at least according to one leading British broadsheet.

It had been presumed that our relatively low death toll from COVID-19 would eventually benefit the tourism industry, with overseas visitors flooding back in their millions due to our safe and responsible handling of the pandemic. This may still occur, if we ever extract ourselves from the mess we're in and actually allow foreign tourists and their spending power to flow back in.

But for every person impressed by our pandemic crushing measures, there seem to be others astonished at our swingeing border closure edicts that saw tens of thousands of Australia's own citizens locked out of their own country with others trapped on the wrong side of their own state borders.

Major sporting events can be a blessing when they serve to enhance a nation's image, such as the Sydney 2000 Olympics and, until this week, the phenomenally-successful Australian Open tennis. They can also be a curse, as exemplified by Beijing's imminent Winter Olympics, Qatar's World Cup of football and the ill-fated Tokyo Games earlier this year.

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The Australian Open is a jewel in the tourism crown for a beleaguered Melbourne. It generates millions for the so-called visitor economy, and has been fiercely protected with massive taxpayer investment in Melbourne Park with its array of weather-beating retractable roof arenas.

Its organisers have long considered China, which has long coveted a grand slam of tennis of its own, as a real threat to the Open, though the People's Republic has of late been courageously ostracised by the women's tennis circuit. Notably the men's circuit is yet to do the same.

So the so-called "happy slam" of world tennis is feeling a little, well, slammed from the succession of controversies generated by the pandemic and Australia's uncompromising border stance. While many around the world will, and have, applauded the exit of the world's number one from the Australian Open even before he set foot on its synthetic court, there are many more feeling dismayed.

Ultimately, Australia made the correct stand in rejecting Novak Djokovic's visa. He, like many vaccine sceptics, seems intent on gaming a system designed for the greater good.

Australia will ultimately discover that a healthy international image will be an asset as we emerge from the pandemic. Many of those cranes looming above our CBDs belong to hotels that were commissioned for the tourism boom that was brutally derailed by the pandemic and which will one day need to be filled, and not just be tennis players.

Perhaps Oliver Brown, the chief sports writer of the UK Telegraph, summed it up best in a piece that was scathing of our political elite.

"It is still possible, though, to feel a touch uncomfortable at how a nine-time Australian Open champion, a figure who in 2009 donated money to help relief efforts from the country's devastating bushfires, is being held up to such merciless ridicule."