Reopen borders, ailing tourism sector tells Aussie states

A view of Townsville, a coastal city in northeastern Queensland. Australia's tourism sector is currently losing almost A$6 billion (S$5.9 billion) a month. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australia's struggling tourism sector is launching a multi-pronged effort to try to force the country to reopen as lengthy border closures and lockdowns threaten to devastate the industry.

As the busy summer holidays approach, Australia's airlines, hotels and tourism bodies are increasingly anxious about missing out on the peak tourism season. The sector is currently losing almost A$6 billion (S$5.9 billion) a month.

Tourism businesses have begun to retaliate, including making plans to take legal action and to divert flights from areas that refuse to reopen.

Travel booking giant Flight Centre plans to join other travel businesses to launch legal action against Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania if they do not adopt a "reasonable" plan in the coming weeks to lift their border closures.

Flight Centre chief executive Graham Turner said the closures were costing the company A$100 million a month.

"We expect the state premiers to have a plan and we expect it to be reasonable," he told The Australian. "If not and the borders stay shut, we don't have a choice but to challenge."

A challenge against Western Australia's border closures by mining tycoon Clive Palmer failed last year after a judge ruled that the closure was an acceptable measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But Flight Centre says the availability of vaccines now means that states can reopen without grave threats to public safety.

The two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and the national capital Canberra have all been in lockdown for months due to outbreaks of the Delta strain of the Covid-19 virus, though restrictions in Sydney are now being eased.

The state of New South Wales (NSW), which includes Sydney, on Wednesday (Oct 6) recorded 594 local cases, down from a peak of 1,603 cases in September. Victoria, which includes Melbourne, recorded 1,420 cases on Wednesday after a peak of 1,763 cases on Tuesday.

But some states, such as Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia, which have few or no local cases, have signalled that they may keep borders shut even when they reach the national vaccination target of 80 per cent of residents aged 16 and over. As at Wednesday, 58 per cent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated.

Before the pandemic, Australia had a booming tourism industry. In 2019, it received 9.5 million arrivals, including 1.44 million from China and 818,000 from the United States. There were 478,500 arrivals from Singapore. But this influx has come to a sharp halt during the pandemic.

Aside from a travel bubble with New Zealand, which is currently suspended, Australia has kept its international borders closed to non-residents. Australians have also been barred from going overseas and the number of incoming arrivals from abroad has been capped.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced last week that the international border will reopen in November for states with 80 per cent vaccination rates. Vaccinated travellers will be allowed to enter and must spend a week in home quarantine, instead of the current 14 days in an official facility. "It's time to give Australians their lives back," Mr Morrison said.

But Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said this week that the seven-day home quarantine should be a temporary measure only, warning that it will deter business travellers and tourists.

Covid-19 restrictions in Sydney are now being eased. PHOTO: REUTERS

Qantas also plans to reroute its non-stop flights to London away from Perth due to Western Australia's refusal to open its borders. It instead wants to operate flights from Melbourne to Darwin and then non-stop to London until at least April 2022.

"If this service can't operate through Darwin, it will instead fly Melbourne-Singapore-London until at least April 2022," the airline said last month.

Tourism industry bodies have also urged states to open their borders when vaccination rates reach 80 per cent.

But state leaders outside NSW and Victoria remain reluctant, particularly as opinion polls show there is strong public support for keeping borders closed, if necessary, even after vaccination targets are reached.

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