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Travel to Australia might not restart until the end of 2021

The Australian government’s latest announcement isn’t good news for travel Down Under

James Manning

Australia’s borders have been shut to non-essential travel since March 2020, and look like staying that way for a while. Despite recent signs of optimism for post-vaccine travel, including Australia’s biggest airline bringing forward the date when it expects international flights to return, the Aussie government has now said that its borders could remain closed for most of 2021. Here’s what you need to know.

Who can travel to and from Australia right now?

Australian citizens and permanent residents are currently banned from leaving the country and no non-essential international travellers are being allowed in, except for those from New Zealand. This means that Australians and their families and friends abroad are separated, and the country’s tourism industry (already hit badly by bushfires) is missing out on its peak summer season.

Things are changing slightly, however: Australians will soon be able to visit New Zealand as part of the trans-Tasman travel bubble. New Zealanders can already visit Australia, following regional restrictions. (Also, Australian citizens and permanent residents can return to the country, but will face 14 days’ hotel quarantine at their own expense.)

Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as Fiji and New Caledonia, have all been mentioned as possible destinations for Australians to visit under potential new arrangements. However, the delay of the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble has been a setback for travel in the region.

Meanwhile, Australians have been so desperate to travel that a series of scenic day flights over Antarctica sold out quickly – despite sky-high fares. When you gotta fly, you gotta fly!

When will travel to Australia from overseas be possible?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

First witness: Qantas, Australia’s biggest airline. Last year, Qantas said it did not expect to fly any international routes until next July – and wouldn’t link Australia to the US or UK until October 2021. But in January there was an update – and, surprisingly, it included some good news.

As expected, Qantas planned to resume international flights from July, with tickets going on sale in January. Unexpectedly, though, US and UK routes were included, defying those earlier predictions. (Qantas states that anyone who books a flight that is later cancelled will get a refund, an alternative booking or travel credit.)

That means you can now book a Qantas flight to Australia from many world destinations from July 1. The news was a clear sign that the biggest Australian airline expected widespread international travel to come back four months sooner than previously thought.

But if you’d like a counterpoint to that optimism, you might want to check in with the Australian government. Way back in October, Aussie treasurer Josh Frydenberg also said that ‘international travel… is assumed to remain largely closed off until late next year,’ adding that Australia is waiting for a vaccine to become widely available before reopening its borders.

Following Qantas’s announcement that it would be restarting all its flights from July, the country’s minister for transport responded by saying: ‘Decisions about when international travel resumes will be made by the Australian Government.’ (It’s also worth noting that the airline was previously selling international flights from March 2021, all of which have now been cancelled.)

And now, in the clearest signal yet that the country’s authorities have not reconsidered their timetable for reopening borders to the world, Australia’s health secretary has said that hefty border restrictions will be a feature of Australian life for the bulk of 2021.

‘I think that we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions,’ said Brendan Murphy on January 18. ‘Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don't know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus.’ Bummer.

Aussies desperate for a break outside the country (or that long-awaited family reunion) and travellers dreaming of a trip Down Under have got used to bad news over the past 11 months. But hey, an update like this still stings.

It’s official: not being able to travel is taking an emotional toll on us.

Where can you travel right now? Here’s what you need to know.

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