Since last March, speculation, best guesses and whataboutery has been just about the best anyone could manage when it came to pinpointing when Australia's international borders would reopen. But now we know for sure: in November 2021.
There are a couple of things that need to happen first, including trials of a new seven-day, at-home quarantine model, and travelling privileges will only be permitted for the fully vaccinated, at least at first. But after infamously saying that Australians were in no rush to travel overseas (or get vaccinated) earlier this year, the prime minister has done a backflip and accelerated the reintroduction of international departure and entry in Australia, saying "It's time to give Australians their lives back."
When will borders reopen?
Once a state's population is 80 per cent vaccinated, borders can reopen, on a state-by-state basis. However, while NSW, as the nation's most vaccinated state, is set to reach this threshold by October 16, the aforementioned trials and vaccination passport infrastructure will not be finalised until November, so we'll have to wait until then to dust off our suitcases.
Who will be allowed to travel?
For now, only people who have been fully vaccinated on outbound journeys. A QR code-supported vaccine passport that will be recognised worldwide, much like a visa, will make trying to board a flight without being inoculated virtually impossible. Unvaccinated Australian citizens and residents will be allowed to return home to Australia, however.
Provided the planned pilot works as expected, returning Australians who have been fully vaccinated will be able to quarantine from home for just seven days, rather than undergo the costly process of hotel quarantine, which currently runs up a bill in excess of $4,000 for a two-week isolation. However, those who have not been vaccinated or who have received a vaccine that has not been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) will still have to enter 14-day managed quarantine under guard in a hotel.
The TGA has now recognised the Sinovac vaccine, developed in China, which should make it much easier for travellers from Asian nations to come to Australia. Children and those with legitimate medical exemptions will be treated as vaccinated and will be permitted to quarantine at home.
There will be caps on the number of unvaccinated Australians who can return, due to limits on hotel quarantine spots, but there will be no caps on the number of fully vaccinated people who can enter the country, as they will be permitted to quarantine at home upon their return.
Where will we be allowed to go?
Essentially anywhere, although travel bans could become a reality for destinations with especially high levels of the virus or dangerous new variants. Likewise, certain countries may ban Australians, if levels of the virus climb here. If you don't want to waste time quarantining, there are already plans in the works to create quarantine-free travel bubbles with certain nations. The first to get up and running will be with New Zealand, which had already established a short-lived two-way travel bubble with Australia, which unfortunately popped once the Delta outbreak started spreading in NSW. Singapore or Hong Kong are both likely candidates for future bubbles.
While we can start daydreaming about international jaunts again, the fate of interstate travel is altogether murkier. In a strange twist of fate, overseas travel may resume for the people of NSW and Victoria before interstate travel does. Both NSW and Vic have accepted that, given the rampant transmissibility of the Delta variant and its persistent presence in the community, reaching Covid-zero is no longer an option. From October 11, NSW will enter a new paradigm of 'living with Covid' as public businesses and venues begin to reopen to fully vaccinated people, and Victoria is set to follow suit sometime in November. However, places like WA and Queensland are still attempting to maintain a total suppression strategy. Circulation of the virus within the domestic population is one thing, but once international visitors return to Australia, imported cases will also be on the rise. For states that cling to the zero spread target, international travel could be permanently off the cards, as well as travel to Australian states that do permit overseas arrivals.
Who will we fly with?
Qantas has made no secret that it is ready to start flying internationally again – it has been promising us flights for months now, first suggesting borders would open in July, and then October. Apparently twice bitten, thrice shy, Qantas' third guestimate of when flights might resume was a more conservative date in December of this year, but it's likely the airline will make flights available in November now the official word has been given.
However, that's not to say that globetrotting will be as easy as it was pre-March 2020. Not for a while, anyway. Many airlines, including Qantas, have had to downsize their fleet, servicing some routes less and scrapping others altogether. For example, due to a combination of climbing airport fees, WA's isolationist Covid position, and lack of demand, Qantas is bypassing Perth on its European routes throughout this summer, redirecting flights through Darwin and indefinitely suspending its direct Perth to London route. Qantas is also cancelling almost all of its domestic flights to WA from Sydney and Melbourne.
In April 2021, Deloitte Access Economics' latest quarterly business outlook projected that rates of air travel wouldn't return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, and that seemingly bleak prediction was made before the emergence of the now globally dominant Delta variant. This may have an impact on the cost of flights, potentially pushing international travel budgets to prohibitive heights.
With the ink still wet on the news of the border reopening, it's too early to say every airline will that will be reestablishing links with Australia or which countries they'll be taking Australians to, although several major airlines have already swooped to schedule a handful of routes from Australia from November. While the broad strokes of Australia's return to a globalised world are now known, there are many fine details – including how vaccination passports will work; whether testing, masks and quarantining will be necessary long-term in a vaccinated world; and what travel bubbles may eventually be realised – that are as yet to be revealed.