Borders reopen gradually in 'Fortress Australia' but travellers remain wary

The federal government reopened to backpackers on working holiday visas and to international students in mid-December. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australia has begun gradually reopening its borders but has been struggling to lure back travellers who have been put off by the country's Covid-19 outbreak and history of strict closures as well as confusing rules.

Following almost two years of strict closures, the federal government reopened the country to backpackers on working holiday visas and to international students in mid-December.

It has also opened quarantine-free travel bubbles with four countries - Singapore, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. But other tourists are still barred from entering.

In an attempt to encourage backpackers and students to return, the federal government last month cancelled the usual visa fees of A$630 (S$600) for students and A$495 for working holidaymakers.

These fee waivers, which began on Jan 19, will continue until March 19 for students and until April 19 for holidaymakers.

But travellers do not appear to be rushing to return.

About 18,378 foreigners are reportedly in Australia on working holiday visas, down from about 141,000 before the pandemic.

Analysts believe that Australia's appeal to foreign travellers has been damaged by the country's record of strict border closures during the pandemic as well as the confusing mix of rules imposed by different states.

The state of Western Australia, for instance, was due to open its domestic borders on Saturday (Feb 5) but decided two weeks ago to remain closed due to outbreaks of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in other states.

The recent saga involving tennis player Novak Djokovic, who was eventually forced to leave because he was not fully vaccinated, also drew attention to Australia's strict - and sometimes complicated - rules.

Marketing lecturer Andrew Hughes from the Australian National University said the country's strict approach to travellers during the pandemic had damaged its "brand" and led to fears of "Fortress Australia".

"Things will change once travellers know they won't be put in hotel quarantine or put in detention," he told ABC News.

"But, at the moment, you can understand the hesitancy. We basically told people, 'we don't want you here', so it will be difficult for a time to get them back."

Late last year, Australia's state and federal governments finally achieved high vaccination rates and started preparing to fully reopen to international travellers. But a surge in Omicron cases delayed the reopening plans.

On Friday, Australia recorded 32,213 new Covid-19 cases nationally, including 10,698 in New South Wales, 11,240 in Victoria and 6,857 in Queensland. But case numbers and hospitalisations have been dropping.

The lack of foreign travellers has taken a heavy toll on the tourism sector, which has been urging the federal government to fully reopen international borders, something Canberra has indicated may occur by April.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week that he wanted to reopen as quickly as possibly but was concerned that a sudden influx of arrivals could pose risks to the health system.

"We have had a very successful opening up already over the summer to backpackers and to those on the economic migration programmes, and opening up to Singapore," he told reporters.

"The key issue… in opening up the border to international arrivals is what impact that might have on the hospital system."

Mr John Hart, executive chair of Australian Chamber-Tourism, a peak tourism body, said 70,000 businesses had closed during the pandemic due to the loss of tourists.

"We've got lots of people offshore waiting to come," he told Triple M radio.

"We really need to welcome them. We need to have them back to our shores, so that our businesses can get back to business."

The chief executive of Australian airline Qantas, Mr Alan Joyce, who has been rallying for borders to reopen, singled out Western Australia on Friday, declaring that Australians should be "outraged" by its strict border rules and added that the state was "starting to look like North Korea".

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