Australia opened its international borders to all vaccinated tourists on Monday, nearly two years after the island nation first imposed some of the world’s strictest travel restrictions due to Covid-19.
Qantas flight from Los Angeles first touched down in Sydney at 6:20 am (1720 GMT) followed by arrivals from Tokyo, Vancouver and Singapore.
“It’s fair to say we’ve all waited so long to welcome visitors back to Australia,” said Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO.
The national carrier expects to bring more than 14,000 travelers to Australia this week – the beginning of what many believe will be a long and slow recovery for the tourism sector devastated by the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to see a very strong recovery,” Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said at Sydney Airport.
Tehan said attracting tourists from China, formerly Australia’s largest market, will be difficult while the country enforces a zero-Covid policy.
“But once that changes, Tourism Australia has done a lot of work to make sure we’ll be ready to encourage these Chinese visitors to come.”
Only 56 international flights are set to land in Australia within 24 hours after reopening – well below pre-pandemic levels – but Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there was “no doubt” the number would rise in time.
‘Fortress Australia’ Australia closed its borders to almost everyone but citizens and residents in March 2020 in a bid to slow the rise in Covid-19 case numbers.
The travel ban – which also prevented citizens from traveling abroad without exception and imposed severe restrictions on international arrivals – earned the country the nickname “Fortress Australia”.
Each month under the policies costs businesses an estimated A$3.6 billion ($2.6 billion), according to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with tourism particularly hard hit.
Tony Walker, managing director of the Quicksilver Group, which operates cruises, dive trips and resorts across the Great Barrier Reef, told AFP he was “very excited about being able to reopen.”
Walker said international tourists “make up about 70 percent” of tourism operators’ business on the reef, making the two-year border closure “extremely difficult”.
During the pandemic, his company had to cut its headcount from the 650 to the 300 it has today.
On Sunday, Morrison said tourism has “already bore the brunt of this Covid pandemic” and thanked the sector.
“It has been tough, but Australia is moving forward,” he added.