Coronavirus: Reopening

Tears and cheers as Australia reopens international borders

SYDNEY • Australia eased its international border restrictions yesterday for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing some of its vaccinated public to travel freely and many families to reunite, sparking emotional embraces at airports.

After more than 18 months of some of the world's strictest coronavirus border policies, millions of Australians are now free to travel without a permit or the need to quarantine on arrival in the country. While travel is initially limited to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, the move sets in motion a plan to reopen the country to international tourists and workers, both much needed to reinvigorate a fatigued nation.

Passengers on the first flights from Singapore and Los Angeles arrived in Sydney early in the morning, many greeted by tearful friends and relatives they had not seen for several months.

Travellers were also welcomed by airline staff holding banners and gifts of Australian wildflowers and chocolate biscuits.

"Little bit scary and exciting, I've come home to see my mum because she's not well," said Mr Ethan Carter after landing on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles.

"So it's all anxious and excitement and I love her heaps and I can't wait to see her," he said, adding that he had been out of the country for two years.

In Melbourne, a water cannon sprayed a Singapore Airlines plane in celebration as it taxied down the tarmac after landing.

In one of the world's toughest responses to the coronavirus pandemic, Australia shut its international border 18 months ago, barring foreign tourists and banning citizens from either exiting or arriving unless granted an exemption.

The strict travel rules effectively prohibited many Australians from attending significant events, including weddings and funerals, as well as preventing people from seeing family and friends.

The relaxation of travel rules in the states of Victoria and New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory comes as much of the country switches from a Covid-zero pandemic management strategy towards living with the virus through extensive vaccinations.

Although the Delta outbreak had kept Sydney and Melbourne in lockdowns for months until recently, Australia's Covid-19 cases remain far lower than many comparable countries, with around 170,500 infections and 1,743 deaths as at Sunday.

Around 1,500 people were scheduled to fly into Sydney and Melbourne yesterday, according to the airline industry group Bara.

The change in travel rules, however, is not uniform across the country, with states and territories having differing vaccination rates and health policies.

Western Australia, which includes one of the world's biggest iron ore precincts, remains largely cut off from the rest of the country - and the world - as the state tries to protect its virus-free status.

And while Thailand and Israel were set to welcome vaccinated tourists from yesterday, foreign travellers are not yet welcome in Australia, with the exception of those from neighbouring New Zealand.

"We still have a long way to go in terms of the recovery of our sector, but allowing fully vaccinated Australians to travel without quarantine will provide the template for bringing back students, business travellers and tourists from all over the world," Sydney Airport chief executive Geoff Culbert said.

Singapore citizens will be allowed entry from Nov 21.

Meanwhile, Australian officials yesterday added India's Covaxin shot and China's BBIBP-CorV shot, made by Sinopharm, to a growing list of accepted vaccines, expanding the number of people who will be allowed to travel to Australia without quarantine.

Unvaccinated travellers will still face quarantine restrictions and all travellers must have a negative Covid-19 test result prior to boarding.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2021, with the headline 'Tears and cheers as Australia reopens international borders'. Subscribe