SYDNEY (NYTIMES) - Moments after the Australian government announced that it would reopen the country's borders to international travellers later this month, Ms Emily Barrett locked in a fare for a flight to Sydney.
The 32-year-old nanny from Palo Alto, California, spent three days researching and talking to Australian friends before she decided to book her trip to the island continent, which for two years had some of the world's strictest border controls and longest lockdowns aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
"They all said, 'if we go back into a lockdown now, people will go into the streets,'" she said. Her two-week trip is scheduled to start a few days after the border opens on Monday (Feb 21).
Potential travellers and tourism operators alike are cautiously optimistic about the reopening of "Fortress Australia", but many wonder if the isolated nation's ongoing Covid-19 restrictions - such as vaccine and testing requirements, as well as mask mandates - will make the return of international travel more of a trickle than a splash.
Australia's reputation for rigidity and reclusiveness during the pandemic - at odds with the inviting, easygoing nature portrayed by the country's tourism boards - may also be a hurdle to overcome.
"There is no doubt that a full recovery will take time, but we are confident that the demand for Australia is strong," said Ms Phillipa Harrison, the managing director of Tourism Australia, the country's tourism board.
Tourism was one of the fastest growing sectors in Australia's economy before the pandemic, contributing A$45 billion (S$43.5 billion) in 2019.
Australia is among the world's most immunised countries for Covid-19, with 94 per cent of people over 16 fully vaccinated. Through 2020 and 2021, the country pursued a tough "zero Covid" strategy that closed national and state borders; restricted Australians from returning home and even leaving; enforced months-long lockdowns and required its few visitors to undergo expensive hotel quarantines.
Surging cases of the Omicron variant in January, which persist, but have since declined, tipped most of the country into a new "living with the virus" phase.
"It's about coming back so the virus is under our control, whereas we felt that the virus was controlling us," said Dr Catherine Bennett, a public health researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne, adding that opening the borders represented a turning point. "This is saying: We're ready for this."
Australia's walls come down
Australia's grand reopening comes with a few ground rules. Travellers entering the country must be fully vaccinated to avoid a costly two-week hotel quarantine, and must test before arrival - somewhat common requirements for travel now.
But it will take a little more time for Australia's welcome mat to roll out all the way. The entire state of Western Australia - a third of Australia's vast land mass, but home to just 10 per cent of the population - has essentially been closed to both international travellers and even vaccinated Australian citizens for most of the pandemic.
It plans to reopen to vaccinated travellers on March 3, with testing rules on arrival. The state, which has reported about 2,900 total cases and 10 deaths since the pandemic began, is home to Perth - one of the world's most remote major cities - more than 11,000km of coastline, the Kimberley region's dramatic sandstone gorges and wine destinations like Margaret River.
While the federal government can open the nation's borders, the states can still set their own restrictions, including entry rules.
"We desperately want people to come back," said Mr Graeme Skeggs, a general manager at Adam's Pinnacle Tours, one of Western Australia's larger tour companies, which, until the pandemic, operated luxury tours of the state's renowned coastlines and landscapes.
Much of their business evaporated after Covid-19 struck, and some smaller operators the company worked with have closed. "Two years is a lot longer than any of us thought," Mr Skeggs said.
While many operators who rely on foreign tourists are hopeful, it's clear that there is no simple return to pre-pandemic times.
China overtook New Zealand as Australia's largest foreign tourist market for the first time in 2017, and 1.3 million visitors from mainland China spent more than A$12 billion in 2019, about 27 per cent of the year's international visitor spend.
With China still severely limiting outbound travel, that leaves a gaping hole in Australia's tourism economy.
Ms Michelle Chen opened the Apollo Surfcoast Chinese Restaurant in 2012 along Victoria's Great Ocean Road - one of the state's major scenic attractions, about a 2.5-hour drive from Melbourne - to cater to the hundreds of Chinese day-trippers who would stream off buses each day on their way to view the Twelve Apostles, a limestone rock formation farther down the coast.
When Australia closed to Chinese travellers on Feb 1, 2020, she lost "nearly 100 per cent" of her business. In another stroke of misfortune, the restaurant burned down in April of last year. She reopened in December a few doors down. But Ms Chen is not expecting her core customers to return for a long time.
She's even revamped her menu, which used to feature dishes like Sichuan chilli chicken that appealed to mainland Chinese visitors. Now the menu is "80 per cent Australian-Chinese", Ms Chen said, with milder offerings like Mongolian beef. "I find I can't sell the Chinese-Chinese dishes."
Another thing desperately she's looking forward to with the return of international travel: more workers. "Everywhere there is shortage of labour," she said.
The Djokovic drama
In January, the Australian Open - one of the country's biggest sporting events, which draws hundreds of millions of viewers annually - became a media circus when Novak Djokovic, the world's No. 1 men's tennis player, who is not vaccinated, was detained and finally deported from Melbourne because of his risk for "civil unrest".
The drama, which stretched on for 10 days, triggered protests in Australia from groups who believed the battle was the latest example of Covid-19-related mandates trampling public freedoms.
"Strong borders are fundamental to the Australian way of life," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after the decision to cancel the tennis star's visa.
Australia's fixation with border security is highly contentious within the country, particularly its harsh treatment of asylum-seekers, but ultimately plays well with voters. But how would Djokovic's unceremonious booting fit into Australia's new "come on in" narrative?
"From our view, it really highlights the strength of Australia's border policies," said Mr Chris Allison, Tourism Australia's acting manager of the Americas.
While Djokovic's treatment was divisive, he said, it showed that "Australia has zero tolerance in terms of requiring vaccinations to come into the country", and affirms the message of "how we're trying to reopen our borders safely and protect the health of the nation".
But time - and bookings - will tell if long-haul travellers are willing to bet on Australia's reopening.
Some prefer to wait and see. Australia was where "everyone wanted to go" before the pandemic, said Ms Samantha Carranza, a manager at Sky Tours, a travel agency in downtown Los Angeles. But "there isn't much demand right now", she said, adding that Australia's protectiveness has made her clients cautious to travel there.
"No one's sure if it's really open or not. Will it close again, will they get stuck there?"
The data shows that interest in travel to Australia is already on the rise: Flight bookings were up 200 per cent following the border-opening announcement compared with the week before, according to Forward Keys, a travel analytics company.
"While the immediate jump in bookings is encouraging, the overall booking volume compared to the equivalent week in 2019 is modest," said Mr Olivier Ponti, the firm's vice-president of insights.
"I imagine there will be more and more confidence over the course of the year," said Ms Christie Hudson, a senior public relations manager at Expedia, the major online travel agency. "People are really ready to start thinking about these bucket-list trips again. I think for a lot of Americans, Australia is a bucket-list-type trip."
Opening Aboriginal Australia to the world, cautiously
Cultural experiences led by Australia's diverse indigenous groups will be a focus of marketing to overseas travellers, according to Tourism Australia. But in the Northern Territory, the region with the highest proportion of indigenous people, many remote communities are barred to outsiders until at least March 3 in an effort to protect the residents there from infection.
International visitors are key for the region's indigenous tourism sector: Before the pandemic, nearly 70 per cent of overseas visitors to the Northern Territory engaged in Aboriginal tourism activities, compared to 16 per cent of Australian tourists.
Mr Victor Cooper, who owns and operates Ayal Aboriginal Tours in Kakadu National Park, said he used to welcome visitors from Europe and the United States to his "grandmother's country", where he taught them about bush tucker (native foods) and told traditional stories of the land.
"I had a really, really good thing in the overseas market, it took a long time to get that," Mr Cooper said. He has not had any overseas bookings since the reopening announcement, and worries things may be "complicated" for a while yet. "I don't think I'm going to get the clients I used to have back in 2019."
Other tourism operators are already seeing signs of recovery, which gives them hope for a better year ahead.
"It's good to see people again," Mr Dave Gordon, an employee at Wake Up Bondi, a hostel on Sydney's famous beach, said of the limited number of travellers who have been filtering back in recent months. "It's exciting."
Since the news of the border reopening, booking numbers for later in the year have risen, Mr Gordon said.
The first year of the pandemic was "quite a struggle", he said. To survive, the hostel, which is on Bondi Beach's main thoroughfare, slashed its rates and accepted longer-term lodgers, and even closed for a period.
But the border opening removes a major hurdle for him and other operators across the country, who want to convey a clear message for would-be tourists thinking of Australia: "Come!" he said. "This is the time to travel."