Australia has unlocked its frontiers. After almost two years of near-total closure to tourists, business travellers and family visitors, most of the nation opened to fully vaccinated arrivals from overseas at midnight local time on Monday 21 February.
But with stringent conditions for travellers will the British rush back to one of their favourite destinations?
The travel correspondent of The Independent, Simon Calder, was on the first foreign plane to land in the biggest city, Sydney, after the travel ban was lifted.
So what exactly has changed overnight?
In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold around the world. Like almost every other nation, in a bid to protect its population Australia closed its frontiers to outsiders.
But the travel restrictions imposed by the federal government in Canberra, and state and territory governments, have been far tougher and longer lasting than in most countries.
Even returning citizens found it difficult to get back in – with a strict cap on the rate of repatriation, and mandatory quarantine either in hotels or at a former mining camp in the Northern Territory.
Australians were banned from leaving their own country, and still face restrictions moving between states. But three things combined to bring about the reopening to the world:
- The spread of Omicron, which has taken root especially in the biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.
- High levels of vaccination, including boosters, among the population.
- Increasing anger at the ban on international visitors – from people desperate to see loved ones and from once-flourishing tourism businesses who have seen their market vanish.
How many hurdles must you jump to reach Australia?
Getting the free “eVisitor” visa for Australia was simple – it took about seven minutes to complete and the same again to be issued.
But everything after that is complex. Even buying a ticket is a tricky business.Unless you’re on one of the rare and rather expensive direct flights on Qantas, you have to work out where you can change planes without triggering the need for extra tests – such as Singapore – or where connecting passengers are banned, as in Hong Kong.
Also, you run the risk that the rules may change suddenly before you go. Accordingly, I bought my ticket on the afternoon before I travelled.
Having booked a flight, your problems are only just beginning. Before travelling to the airport you must sort out the bureaucracy. You will need:
- a copy of your vaccination certificate, including any boosters
- proof of a negative Covid-19 test in the 24 hours before departure
- everything uploaded to a complex Digital Passenger Declaration for Australia.
I turned up at Heathrow airport three hours ahead to ensure I had everything in order – and to give me a chance to get an extra Covid test in case there was a detail I had overlooked.
What about rules when you get there?
Each mainland state makes its own regulations, generally requiring a test upon arrival and quarantine until a negative result is obtained. Tasmania has no travel restrictions on international arrivals.
New South Wales: “Upon arrival into NSW, passengers who are fully vaccinated must go straight to your home or accommodation; take a Covid-19 rapid antigen test; self-isolate until you get a negative test result.”
Victoria: “Immediately quarantine at home upon arrival in Victoria. Get a rapid antigen test, or a PCR test if you don’t have access to a rapid antigen test, within 24 hours of arriving and continue to quarantine until you receive a negative result.”
Queensland: “Undertake a Covid-19 test within 24 hours of arrival to Queensland and quarantine at [your] residence, accommodation or boat, leaving only if necessary to obtain a Covid-19 test at an approved Queensland Government Covid-19 Testing Centre, until a negative result is received.”
South Australia: the post-arrival test must be a PCR.
Western Australia: “Undertake a rapid antigen test within 12 hours of arriving and register any positive result.” Arrivals must also enrol in the G2G Pass scheme. On arrival, they must scan the QR code on the arrival poster.
How was the journey – and the mood on board that first flight to Sydney?
Eleven thousand miles of flying in economy class with a two-hour flight connection along the way is never going to be a source of unremitting pleasure. Wearing a mask is mandatory at all the airports and on board the planes, except when you’re actually eating or drinking. That’s not too much of a pain on a two-hour hop to Spain, but for a 24-hour trip it becomes distinctly uncomfortable.
I travelled via Tokyo; normally I would have loved to stop over for a day or two in the Japanese capital, but that’s not currently a possibility. The transit was extremely efficient and straightforward: they called all the international connecting passengers off the plane first (people who were staying in Japan had to be processed first on the plane)
The flight down from Tokyo was fairly muted, perhaps because of those masks. I didn’t detect any other tourists: the announcement of Australia’s opening was made only two weeks ago, and organising a trip here is usually a fairly long-term process.
How warm was the welcome?
Extremely welcoming – with free koala cuddly toys and Vegemite for the first wave of arrivals – from Tokyo and Los Angeles.
Passport control and customs was extremely swift – about three minutes, including using one of the many automated kiosks.
The only “biosecurity” question was a cursory glimpse at my vaccination certificate.
Everyone needs a lateral flow test on arrival, and you must quarantine while you wait for the result – but clearly that doesn’t take long.
How much of a battle does Australia face to win back British visitors?
The tourism authorities have launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to try to entice British visitors back – including giant illuminated ads at Piccadilly Circus in London.
Undoubtedly people with family connections will want to get back to Australia. But the timing is awkward: it’s late summer here in Sydney.
Within a month the southern states of Victoria and Tasmania will be heading into autumn and winter. As a result, many tourists will want to postpone their journeys until the last couple of months of 2022.
Meanwhile locations such as the Caribbean, Mexico and South Africa have been attracting sun-starved British visitors, many other countries are opening up – including long-haul destinations such as Singapore and Vietnam.
What did Western Australia do differently?
Australia’s largest state has pursued an isolationist policy for many months – not merely keeping out overseas travellers, but also closing its frontiers to people from other states.
A reopening planned for other Australians in February was postponed because of fears of the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
The premier in the state capital, Perth, Mark McGowan, vowed to try to get the vast majority of the adult population boosted as well as vaccinated before opening up to other Australians and the outside world.
Western Australia finally opened on 3 March, but direct Qantas flights from London Heathrow to Australia are continuing to land in the Northern Territory capital, Darwin, rather than Perth.
Can I go anywhere I like in Australia?
No, some remote aboriginal communities are not open to visitors.
What’s the story with New Zealand?
For people who would ideally make the most of a trip down under by including New Zealand: the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has tentatively said the country will open to travellers in July 2022, but with much local transmission of Omicron, it’s possible that the restrictions could be eased before then.