Travel and COVID-19: Australians unlikely to travel overseas (beyond New Zealand) again before 2021

Australians are unlikely to be able to visit popular destinations like the US and UK until next year, according to experts, as the federal government faces challenges in reopening borders.

Major obstacles exist in opening up destinations other than New Zealand, which are considered to have poorly or inadequately managed the spread of the coronavirus, according to leading travel health experts.

New Zealand, which has enjoyed similar success to Australia in containing the spread of COVID-19, was identified this week by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the likely first overseas border to be reopened to Australian holidaymakers.

Even though Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia's chief medical officer, said this week that international travel should not resume sooner than in "three or four months", travel health specialists believe it could take longer, raising serious implications for the survival of both inbound and outbound tourism operators.

Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, who specialises in global health security and international relations at the University of Sydney, said that Australians need to be prepared to postpone overseas travel for at least the next six months, meaning that overseas travel beyond New Zealand may not resume to any real extent until 2021.

"The fact is that this is a pandemic, and we are still in the early phase," he said. "While there are some European countries, along with Australia and New Zealand, that appear to have turned the corner in terms of the trajectory of cases, there are many countries where the impact of COVID-19 is yet to be fully realised.

"As a result, the virus will continue to circulate throughout a significant proportion of countries for several months and possibly even up to a year. That means there is an ongoing risk to Australia from any incoming traveller and we don't want Australians travelling abroad unless it is for the most exceptional of circumstances."

Professor Kamradt-Scott said countries like the US and UK, which are among the most popular holiday destinations for Australians, local health authorities will need to see evidence that such nations have contained the virus and reduced COVID-19 numbers "down to zero or very close to zero" before they are re-opened for travel.

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Dr Karin Leder, head of the infectious disease epidemiology unit at Melbourne's Monash University agreed there are "major uncertainties" surrounding the reopening of international borders and that they will need be addressed before Australians could travel widely overseas again. Furthermore, it will be difficult to know how well official case numbers in some countries reflect "real levels of infection" and "true risk".


"We do not know when travel could restart or to which countries, and this is likely to remain the case for months," said Dr Leder. "It will depend on comparative stages of the outbreak in both the origin and destination of each traveller."

She said even when a vaccine becomes available, it may not be totally effective, nor may it be universally available in destinations where Australians may travel.

Dr Leder said: "Some countries obviously have better control of COVID-19 than others currently. Establishing travel agreements between countries with similar levels of control may be possible before it is safe to restart unrestricted travel. However, if case numbers in Australia rise, regardless of our own national travel policy, other countries may deny entry to travellers from here."

The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted how interconnected our world is, with the role travellers play in spreading infections never more obvious, according to Dr Leder. Travellers can also serve as markers, or "sentinels", of infections.

If an infected traveller returns to a country with good testing and surveillance infrastructure after visiting a place where testing capabilities are poor, the traveller may provide a signal (sometimes the first signal) of infection in the country they visited."

Professor Murphy acknowledged that the relaxation of border measures would be "very risky" with Australians only allowed to leave the country under "exceptional circumstances" due to the international spread of coronavirus virus, including to "some countries where we know they're not ascertaining cases very well, including in our region".

Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes, a postdoctoral research fellow in tourism, resilience and planning at the University of Melbourne, said that, as soon as it is safe to do so, the re-establishment of commercial international flights to tourism-dependent Pacific island destinations. such as Vanuatu - where no confirmed COVID-19 cases have been recorded to date - could provide important economic aid through tourism to help them recover from Cyclone Harold.

He said that any reopening of international borders will need to be undertaken slowly and carefully so as not to compromise the efforts already achieved by Australian medical authorities and governments with the resumption of interstate domestic tourism in Australia likely to offer insights in how overseas travel can be best managed.

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