SYDNEY – On Monday morning (April 19), Ms Christina Cassin arrived in Melbourne from Wellington after taking advantage of a newly opened quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand.
Her rush to make it to Australia was understandable. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, she had been unable to visit her daughter or see her baby grandson, who was born five months ago.
“I was thinking it wasn’t going to happen until we had the vaccine,” she told The Age.
“But when they opened that bubble up, I just knew I had to come on the first flight.”
The opening of the travel bubble – the first for both countries – has led to tearful reunions and the excited resumption of overseas holidays.
Some Australian airports greeted the first quarantine-free arrivals in more than a year with traditional dances, while newspapers have been filled with advertisements for hotels and holiday opportunities. Both countries are largely free of community-transmitted cases of Covid-19.
Initial flights between the country were close to capacity, as airlines hired extra workers and operated additional flights to accommodate the demand. On Monday alone, almost 10,000 people travelled between the two neighbours.
The excitement quickly raised hopes in Australia’s hard-hit travel sector about the possibility of opening to other destinations, particularly Singapore.
Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport, Mr Michael McCormack, said this week that Singapore was top of the list for a potential next bubble.
He said the government is exploring further opportunities for bubbles with countries that had low risk of Covid-19 transmission, and discussions with Singapore started some weeks ago between the departments of the transport ministries of both countries.
“Hopefully more travel bubbles will be able to be opened up with perhaps Singapore, (and) who knows, Japan, South Korea, South Pacific island nations,” he told Sky News.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Australia has imposed some of the world’s most stringent travel restrictions.
Entry is permitted to only Australian citizens, residents and their families, who are largely required to pay for their compulsory 14-day quarantine stay. And Australian residents are barred from leaving the country, though they may request an exemption from the government.
In recent months, Australia has been mostly free of locally-transmitted Covid-19 cases and life has all but returned to normal. Occasional local outbreaks have occurred after quarantine breaches but swift contact tracing has helped to contain these clusters.
Now, as Australia and other countries begin to embark on vaccination roll-outs, the travel sector is urging Canberra to find ways to reopen its borders.
While the New Zealand bubble has given the travel sector a boost, high-worth tourists from Asia, America and Europe are still unable to visit.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said this week he was hopeful that Australia would soon be able to open bubbles with destinations such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
“Of course, we would like to see the rest of the international borders open up,” he told ABC News.
“But we want it to happen in a safe way because we don’t want all of the good work that has happened in the domestic market to go backwards… When you have any form of quarantine, it does suppress demand for travel.”
Airports, hotels and other airlines have all echoed these calls.
But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made it clear he will not rush to open Australia’s borders.
“Australia is in no hurry to open those borders,” he told reporters last weekend. “The Covid pandemic is raging around the world… I will not be putting at risk the way we are living in this country, which is so different to the rest of the world today.”
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.