Welcome back: Tourism slowly spreads its wings as the world returns to Australia

Australia’s international borders have reopened to tourists for the first time in two years, sparking happy scenes at airports around the country but a word of caution from tourism chiefs.

Feb 21, 2022, updated Feb 21, 2022
Charlotte Roempke, 8,  welcomes her grand father Bernie Edmonds as he arrives at Sydney International Airport on the first day Australia welcomes fully vaccinated visa holders, tourists, and business travellers. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Charlotte Roempke, 8, welcomes her grand father Bernie Edmonds as he arrives at Sydney International Airport on the first day Australia welcomes fully vaccinated visa holders, tourists, and business travellers. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

The first international tourists touched down in Sydney this morning to be greeted by jubilant well-wishers waving Tim-Tams, jars of Vegemite and stuffed koalas.

Federal Tourism Minister Dan Tehan was on hand on Monday to welcome the first arrivals on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles which landed at 6.20am as Australia’s borders reopened to vaccinated travellers.

Qantas on Monday is bringing in people from eight overseas destinations including Vancouver, Singapore, London, and Delhi.

“What wonderful, wonderful news for our tourism industry and the 660,000 people employed in it,” Mr Tehan told the Nine Network.

“There is excitement everywhere, people are loving it, absolutely loving it.

“The first passenger (to enter the arrivals hall) had a huge smile on their face even though they have been on a plane for … 20-odd hours.”

The happy scenes were replicated at Brisbane international airport as well as Melbourne’s Tullamarine.

However, tourism bosses on the Gold Coast say that while soaring online searches show intense travel interest to the Sunshine state it may still be a year or more before international tourist arrivals reach pre-Covid levels.

Speaking with rare hesitancy about the tourism capital’s ability to make a slingshot-like recovery, they say the Gold Coast has been planning the re-opening for the past two years, but the city shouldn’t expect an immediate tourism injection to where it was was before the pandemic.

As the nation opened its borders to vaccinated international tourists, around 700 days after it was slammed shut, Destination Gold Coast CEO Patricia O’Callaghan said that the recovery would be “slow burn”.

“This is a milestone that is really important for the tourism industry,” O’Callaghan said.

“We’ve lost annually more than one million international visitors putting in about $1.3 billion into our local Gold Coast economy, so it’s a huge step forward. But it will be a slow burn, it won’t be a tap that’s turned on overnight.”

More than one million people are expected to flood into the country within the next few months. It has been nearly two years since borders were closed to halt the spread of the pandemic on 20 March 2020.

To boost the recovery, the state government has unveiled a $200m international aviation fund providing incentives for airlines to choose Queensland destinations. Half the money to lure the flights has been contributed by four Queensland airports.

But Queensland Airports chief Chris Mills also said a return to pre-Covid international travel levels would be a “slow build”.

O’Callaghan told ABC Gold Coast the industry had been working for the past two years to hit the ground running when international borders opened.

The Gold Coast got the jump on international arrivals last week, welcoming Scoot Airlines’ Singapore service on Monday.

The Gold Coast has invested more than $1 billion in upgrading the airport and key tourist attractions, as well as spending up to lure tourists from key markets such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea, China and New Zealand.

Queensland Tourism Industry Council CEO Daniel Gschwind said he was a tad more optimistic and was confident pre-Covid flight levels could be reached by Christmas.

“We’re confident demand is strong, the interest in the Australian product is very strong.

“We have what the world wants,” Gschwind said.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said all travellers would be checked before arrival to avoid another Novak Djokovic visa debacle.

Ms Andrews said while the border reopening has been marked with optimism, Border Force agents would be working hard to ensure all travellers comply with the current requirements, including needing to be double-vaccinated.

Vaccination statuses will be checked by the airlines before taking off and the new digital passenger declaration will make it easier for officials to access appropriate documents, the home affairs minister said.

“When they reach Australia, there is every chance that an Australian Border Force official will look for their documentation and ask them to be able to produce it,” she told the ABC.

“Now, whilst we’re not checking every single person coming in at the border, the checks prior to entry make it very clear that you have got virtually no chance of being able to enter this country if you don’t have the proper documentation.”

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said bookings had been strong since the federal government announced the country was opening on February 21 after borders were shut two years ago due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Joyce thanked the millions of Australians who got vaccinated and gave Australian governments confidence to reopen to the rest of the world.

“It has been tough two years for everybody in the tourism industry, but today is really one of the big steps on the way back to a full recovery so we are very excited about today,” he told the Nine Network.

Joyce said the airline was bringing 14,000 people into the country this week on more than 150 international flights.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday was an important day that all Australians had looked forward to.

“Whether you are in far north Queensland or in Sydney … that is going to be welcome news for so many tourism operators,” he told Sydney’s 2GB.

“You don’t have to be a long way away from the city to be reliant on international tourism.”

There are 1.2 million people around the world who are “visa-ed up” to come to Australia with more than 50 international flights to touch down in the next 24-hours, the prime minister said.

But Morrison accused the rail union of “pulling the rug out” from tourism operators on the first day back after train strikes were announced throughout Sydney.

“There are people who this morning are going to have an overpriced Uber, or they’re going to be unable to get to work,” he said.

“This is just not how you behave, and this is not how you treat your fellow citizens.”

However, travellers from Australia’s biggest tourism market, China, will be absent.

That’s because Chinese travellers are not allowed to venture to Australia at the moment, Morrison said.

“That’s why we’re focusing our campaign on those markets that are open to travel to Australia,” he said.

“Australia is one of the most popular destinations of choice all around the world.”

It also comes at a time when NSW, Victoria and the ACT have started winding back further restrictions, like ditching most QR check-ins and lifting bans on dancing at hospitality venues

Victoria is opening its newly built $200 million quarantine hub on Monday for those international travellers who are not vaccinated.

Queensland also has its own purpose-built 500-bed quarantine centre at Wellcamp, near Toowoomba, which is likely to house unvaccinated international arrivals.

Meanwhile, Australia’s death toll from the Omicron variant continues to climb.

NSW has recorded 4916 new Covid-19 cases and seven deaths, Victoria recorded another 5611 cases and three deaths, the ACT had 458 new cases and one death, with Tasmania reporting 569 new cases.

-with AAP


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