An Australia passport is one of the best a traveller can have. According to the Henley Passport Index, which ranks the world's passports according to the number of destinations their holders can enter without a visa, we're number seven on the list, able to visit 185 countries on the strength of our passport alone.
That's great – but some of those 185 countries won't let us in the door right now. The reason is fear of Australian travellers spreading COVID-19 because at the moment, we're not handling it too well.
Will Singapore sling us?
Australia is one of a handful of countries whose passport holders have enjoyed Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) rights with Singapore, allowing eligible vaccinated travellers to enter Singapore without quarantine. At the end of 2021 Singapore shut the door, suspending sales of all VTL tickets until January 20, 2022. For designated VTL flights after that date, VTL ticket sales will be capped at 50 per cent. This move came in response to the increasing spread of the Omicrom variant, and it applied to all countries that had previously enjoyed VTL rights, including the UK, the USA, India and western European countries.
Australians are allowed to travel to Bali but they must do it via Jakarta, not on a non-stop flight to Denpasar. By contrast, New Zealanders could fly non-stop to Bali, except there are currently no non-stop flights between the two. Nationals of 17 other countries including China, Poland and Liechtenstein may also enter Bali direct, but US and Canadian citizens have to go via Jakarta.
The Hong Kong government includes Australia among the "Group A – High risk places" which bars anyone who has been in Australia in the previous 21 days from entry unless they're a fully vaccinated Hong Kong resident. It's not just us. There are more than 160 countries on the Group A list. Even New Zealand.
Are we being shunned?
You have to wonder when we're made to use the tradesman's entrance to Bali, for many years our second most popular overseas destination. Blame politics for playing a part in this decision.
Despite a skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rate, Australia is still perceived to be doing better than most OECD countries. On the US Centres for Disease Control's Travelers' Health website, Australia is given a level three "COVID-19 High" rating. A level three warning puts us in the same category as Singapore, South Korea and Chile, and that's better than all the countries of North America and Europe apart from a handful of eastern European nations. That gives a fairly good indication of how we're regarded by the rest of the world and on that basis there is little danger we'd be singled out as infection-spreaders.
However, Norway is one European country that has bolted the door against us. According to a Norwegian government website, "The COVID-19 certificate must have a QR-code that can be verified by the Norwegian authorities." While the EU digital COVID certificate (EU DCC) is recognised, the International COVID-19 certificate (ICVC) issued by the Australian government is not, and so for the moment, we can't get in the door.
Norway does not see a huge number of Australian visitors but it has a couple of world-class journeys in the Flam Railway and the Hurtigruten cruises, which take travellers on a fiord-hopping journey along Norway's deeply incised west coast, all the way to Kirkenes, within the Arctic Circle and close to the Russian border. Both inspire deep and lasting passions and this situation is causing considerable angst among travellers with plans to visit Norway in the coming spring and summer.
The solution is simple. According to a statement from the European Union External Action Service dated October 27, 2021, "The EU has recently opened its COVID Digital Certificate to non-EU countries, which means that these countries may apply to the European Commission for an "equivalence decision" that would make certificates issued by them directly acceptable under the same conditions as the EU Digital COVID Certificate (EU DCC)."
At a stroke that would solve the problem for Australian travellers wanting to travel freely around Europe. Not only for those who want to visit Norway but also for anyone who wants to visit museums and galleries, sit down in restaurants and travel on long-distance trains, but it seems the Australian government hasn't applied. Don't ask and you don't get. Unlike the citizens of Armenia, the Faroe Islands, Moldova, New Zealand, Togo and 28 other countries, all of whose fully vaccinated citizens have been welcomed into the EU DCC system, the Australian government through its own lack of action has made it far more difficult for us to travel around Europe.
Five reasons travel will be better in 2022
There are reasons to be travel cheerful in 2022, despite the emergence of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
1. We have vaccines against COVID-19, and they work. That opens the door to safe travel, and Australia is one of the most protected countries, with more than 90 per cent of the population aged over 16 double vaccinated. At this time last year, nobody in Australia was vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they'd received the vaccine overseas. The Pfizer vaccine was not approved by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration until late January 2021, AstraZeneca in mid-February.
2. We can now travel overseas without permission. Starting from March 25, 2020, anyone wanting to leave Australia needed to apply to the Department of Home Affairs for a travel exemption. Australia was one of the only countries in the world to impose such a ban on its residents. Today you can leave as you like, provided you comply with vaccine requirements at your destination, just as you might also require a visa.
3. Our state borders are open. Mostly, anyway. Vaccinated travellers from mainland Australia can travel to Tasmania, although those from high-risk areas (see coronavirus.tas.gov.au) must show a negative test, either a rapid antigen test (RAT) within 24 hours before departure or a PCR test within 72 hours. Vaccinated travellers from interstate can enter the Northern Territory but must take a RAT test within two hours of arrival. Western Australia plans to ease interstate and international borders from February 5 (see wa.gov.au).
4. We have also farewelled 14 days' mandatory hotel quarantine for returning travellers. Fully vaccinated Australian travellers returning from overseas to Victoria or NSW must go immediately to their home or accommodation, take a RAT or PCR test and self-isolate awaiting a negative result. Fully vaccinated travellers entering Queensland aboard a quarantine-free flight from a safe travel zone country (see qld.gov.au) can enter without the need to quarantine.
5. The rest of the world is opening up. Provided you're vaccinated, or have recovered from COVID-19, you can enter North America and Europe, although travelling around Europe is problematic due to non-recognition of Australia's international vaccine certificate. The Omicron variant is complicating travel in some of our favourite Asian destinations but you can look forward to the reopening of travel to New Zealand, scheduled for April 30.