The country’s international borders are gradually reopening, but virologists and travel experts advise holiday-makers to “delay” trips, with the industry not expected to completely bounce back before 2024.
- Virologist says stretched testing system remains a major problem for travellers
- Visitor behaviour and tourism industry expert says travellers will likely face many frustrations in the current climate
- Quarantine-free international travel to Queensland resumes this Saturday
For the fully vaccinated, flights in and out of New South Wales have been taking off since late last year, while Queensland will allow quarantine-free international arrivals into the state from this weekend.
The world is slowly becoming more accessible, but virologist Paul Griffin said continued COVID-19 transmission around the world makes it hard to predict the future of travel.
“If holiday plans could be deferred, I think that’s probably advisable and particularly while we get our systems back up and running,” Dr Griffin said.
He said having testing facilities across Australian states and territories stretched to the limit remains a major roadblock.
“If we had more testing capacity it might make things like travel able to be done a little more safely.”
Getting on a plane requires planning
Travelling from Brisbane to Los Angeles this month, I experienced the “new normal” of international travel.
Besides ensuring I was fully vaccinated, just getting on the plane required careful planning — in particular ensuring a negative PCR result no more than a single day before departing.
Due to the demand and delay at community testing clinics, I had to ensure I was at the airport a whole 24 hours before my flight departed and had to pay to ensure I’d get a test that returned results in time.
While I had no symptoms, it was still an anxious wait for a negative test result, given it would have thrown all our carefully laid plans into chaos.
“There’s just a lot more to worry about now,” University of Queensland researcher Pierre Benckendorff said.
Dr Benckendorff, who has spent years studying visitor behaviour and the tourism industry, said travellers will likely face many frustrations in the current climate.
“Patience, be very patient to understand that your travel might be disrupted, particularly if you’re overseas and you catch COVID,” he said.
‘I’m not going to risk everything’
Maddy Black, 24, moved from Brisbane to the United Arab Emirates three years ago.
“When I moved here, if you told me, ‘Oh you won’t be able to go home for almost three years’, I would have said, ‘No way am I going to move’,” she said.
She works as a professional cyclist for Dubai Police but has not returned home because being locked in hotel quarantine was not an option due to her training.
“Until there’s no quarantine and I can fly straight to see my family … I’m not going to risk everything I’ve worked so hard for over the past few years,” she said.
She has had three does of the COVID-19 vaccine, but was reluctant to travel until there is more certainty, regular flights and no quarantine restrictions.
Dr Benckendorff said financial constraints remain one of the biggest issues.
“Then there’s a risk that that flight might get cancelled or the hotel might get cancelled because worldwide there’s a huge shortage of hospitality workers.”
But he said that because of Australia’s hesitancy to reopen compared with other international destinations, it is likely to be “a destination of choice” when borders are fully reopened.
“When you have a destination with high vaccination rates like we have, we’re going to look quite safe compared with some other destinations,” Dr Benckendorff said.
Qantas is one airline trying to adapt to the new COVID normal.
On its Sydney to LAX route for example, the airline currently operates four services a week. The plan is to increase to seven flights per week by March 2022, the same number it was operating pre-COVID.
Booster shot recommended before departure
Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, I noticed three key differences with pre-pandemic overseas travel.
Firstly, there are far fewer people around, given the lower number of flights operating at the moment.
This actually made for a more enjoyable travel experience because it meant waits at customs and check-in points were not as long.
Masks are mandatory everywhere — and strictly enforced on aircraft.
And proof of vaccination was almost as necessary as your passport. I was asked for it multiple times throughout my journey and it also added a fair bit of paperwork at both ends of the journey.
Dr Beckendorff said Australia’s Smartraveller website was an essential source of updated information for travellers and, if possible, people should get a booster shot before they depart “just to give you that extra protection”.