CANBERRA, Australia –
Sydney International Airport came alive with tears, hugs and laughter on Monday as the Australian border opened for the first time in 20 months.
“Being able to get home alone without going into quarantine is enormous,” Carly Boyd, a passenger who had traveled from New York, told reporters at Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney, where Peter Allen’s unofficial national anthem ” I Still Call Australia Home “played.
“There are many people on this flight who have loved ones who are about to die or people who have died this week. So it’s pretty amazing that they can get off the plane and visit right away, ”added Boyd.
Australia is betting that vaccination rates are now high enough to mitigate the risk of international visitors being re-admitted after maintaining some of the longest and strictest border controls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thailand also reopened its border on Monday. Fully vaccinated tourists arriving by air from 46 countries and territories no longer need to be quarantined and can move around freely. And local restrictions like a curfew in some areas have been lifted.
Before the pandemic, Sydney was Australia’s busiest international airport, but it has been almost deserted for months.
The new freedoms also mean fully vaccinated Australian residents and citizens can leave the country for no reason, without asking the government for an exemption from a travel ban that has caught most at home since March 25, 2020.
Incoming vaccinated Australians can come home without being quarantined in a hotel for two weeks. The hotel quarantine limit has been a major barrier to thousands of Australians stranded overseas. This upper limit now only applies to unvaccinated travelers.
Sydney was the first Australian airport to announce its reopening on Monday as New South Wales became the first state to meet the required benchmark of 80% of residents aged 16 and over being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Melbourne and the state capital Canberra also opened on Monday after the state of Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory respectively hit vaccination guidelines.
Sydney had 16 scheduled international one-way flights and 14 one-way flights on Monday. Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, had five in and five out times. Canberra didn’t have any.
The first regular international passenger flight to land in Australia was a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore that landed before 6 a.m. local time, followed by a Qantas Airways flight that flew 15 hours from Los Angeles.
Qantas customer service manager Paul Wason said landing in Sydney was a “huge day” for passengers and crew.
“A lot of mixed feelings, big emotions, good luck, a lot of sadness, a lot of excitement too,” said Wason.
An Australian who lives in San Francisco and identified only as Jeremy said he had been trying to fly back to Sydney with his wife and young daughter since July. They had been prevented from flying four times at short notice, twice because of flight delays and twice because the quarantine limits had been reduced in response to the COVID-19 Delta variant that had arrived in Sydney in June.
“Every moment until we got on the plane, it just felt like something was going wrong and I’m so glad it all worked out and we’re here,” Jeremy told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. at Sydney’s airport.
Initially, only Australian permanent residents and nationals are allowed to enter the country. Fully vaccinated foreigners traveling on a skilled worker and student visa are given preference over international tourists.
But the government now expects Australia to welcome some international tourists by the end of the year.
Some of Australia’s 1.6 million temporary residents feel left out of Australia’s reopening plan and are unsure of their travel status.
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“I think it’s vague about the definition of residents and where we’re going to be included in this national plan,” said Jennifer Clayburn, an American who has lived in Melbourne with her family since January last year and has been granted a short-term skilled worker visa.
“We did it hard, together with all the Australians. We also want to sit at the table with our family for Christmas, but we don’t want to be locked out of Australia after we return, ”she said.
Graham Turner, CEO of Australia’s largest travel agency Flight Center, said international travel to Australia is not expected to return to normal until mid-2024.
“For those who really want to travel, it will come back quickly. In the beginning, it’s friends and relatives – people who haven’t seen each other in a long time, ”said Turner.
“That will be the first wave. And the traveling wave will tend to come a little later once people see what the scenario looks like, “added Turner.
While Australians are now free to travel abroad, there are still restrictions on crossing state borders in four Australian states and one territory.
Australian Ethen Carter, who landed at Sydney Airport from Los Angeles, expressed frustration at having to apply for permission to visit his dying mother in the state of Western Australia.
Western Australia has little COVID-19 and the lowest vaccination rate in the country, with only 63% of the target population being fully vaccinated.
Carter pleaded through the media to the Prime Minister of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, to let him in. McGowan said the state line won’t open this year.
“Mark, think of the people who suffer emotionally to see their families. That is also a health problem. And we know we have to protect people’s lives, but you have to bring families back together – you have to, ”Carter said.
McGowan said his administration would consider allowing Carter entry into the state if he applied for an exemption.
“These situations are very sad and very difficult, and we’ve seen a lot of them over the past two years,” said McGowan.