Australia’s borders have been shut to non-essential travel since March 2020, and look like staying that way for a while. With the vaccine rollout now gaining pace worldwide, there are signs of optimism that travel to and from Australia could restart later in 2021 – not least the fact that Aussie flag carrier Qantas has just started selling flights for the autumn. 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) has pretty much missed 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 July – and wouldn’t link Australia to the US or UK until October 2021.
The airline has since pushed back its reopening date for all routes until autumn. But in a sign it is optimistic travel to and from the country will be allowed then, it has already put on sale all tickets for flights from that date. (To encourage people to book now, Qantas states that it will allow unlimited, free date changes to flights booked from today until April 2022.)
That means you can now book a Qantas flight to Australia from more than 20 destinations starting October 1. It may be four months later than previously thought, but the airline said that, on its current trajectory, the country’s vaccine rollout would effectively be complete by that date, making international travel much more likely to be up and running again.
Of its reopening plans, a Qantas spokesperson added: ‘Capacity will be lower than pre-Covid levels, with frequencies and aircraft type deployed on each route in line with the projected recovery of international flying.’
Then again, if you’d like a counterpoint to that relative optimism, you might want to check in with the Australian government. Way back in October, Aussie treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that ‘international travel… is assumed to remain largely closed off until late next year’.
Australia’s health secretary also said in January 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. ‘Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don't know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus.’
And yet that was before the vaccine rollout accelerated to its current pace, and before studies came out showing at least two of the major vaccines do in fact slow spread of the virus.
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 12 months. Fingers crossed the next official update is a positive one.
If you are planning ahead, here’s how to book an overseas trip for 2021 – without losing your money.
And will you need a vaccine passport? Here’s everything we know.