Australia eased its international border restrictions on Monday for the first time during the pandemic, allowing some of its vaccinated public to travel freely and many families to reunite, prompting emotional hugs at Sydney airport.
After 18 months of some of the world’s strictest coronavirus border policies prohibiting citizens from returning to or leaving the country unless granted an exemption, millions of Australians in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra now they can travel freely.
A Qantas Airways flag carrier flight from Los Angeles landed in Sydney at 6 a.m. local time, Australia’s largest airline said, and travelers vaccinated with COVID-19 were allowed off the plane without self-quarantine.
International travelers also arrived in Sydney via Singapore Airlines early Monday.
While the initial flights are limited to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, it sets in motion a plan to reopen the country to tourists and international workers, both much needed to revitalize a weary nation.
Thailand is also welcoming vaccinated tourists, without quarantine, starting Monday, as is Israel, in a boost to global air travel after an 18-month period.
Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday that the travel changes would immediately help the economy.
“It is a day of celebration: the fact that Australians can enter and leave our country more freely without home quarantine, if they are doubly vaccinated,” said Frydenberg.
Images from television and social media showed tearful family gatherings, with strict travel rules previously banning many people from attending important events, including weddings and funerals.
Relaxation of travel rules is linked to rising vaccination rates, with more than 80% of people aged 16 and over in Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, fully vaccinated.
Australians and permanent residents living abroad can now return, and data from the Foreign Office shows that some 47,000 people hope to do so.
Most tourists, even vaccinated ones, have to wait to come to Australia, although vaccinated New Zealand tourists will be allowed in as of Monday.
Singapore citizens will be able to travel to Australia, without quarantine, from November 21.
Unvaccinated travelers will continue to face quarantine restrictions and all travelers need proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding.
However, the change in travel rules is not uniform across Australia, as states and territories in the country have different vaccination rates and health policies.
Western Australia, home to one of the world’s largest iron ore enclosures, remains largely isolated from the rest of the country, and the world, as the state tries to protect its virus-free status.
Previously, Australia only allowed a limited number of citizens and permanent residents to return from abroad, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine period at a hotel at their expense.
But the change came when he shifted a COVID-zero pandemic management strategy toward living with the virus through extensive vaccinations.
While the Delta outbreak kept Sydney and Melbourne locked up for months until recently, Australia’s COVID-19 cases remain much lower than many comparable countries, with just over 170,500 infections and 1,735 deaths.