Australia eased its international border restrictions on Monday for the first time during the pandemic, allowing some of its vaccinated public to travel freely and many families to reunite, sparking emotional embraces at Sydney’s airport.
After 18 months of some of the world’s strictest coronavirus border policies that banned citizens from either returning to the country or leaving it, unless granted an exemption, millions of Australians in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra are now free to travel.
A flight by flag carrier Qantas Airways from Los Angeles touched down in Sydney at 6 a.m. local time, Australia’s biggest airline said, with COVID-19 vaccinated travelers allowed to walk off the plane without quarantining.
International travelers also arrived in Sydney via Singapore Airlines early on Monday.
While the initial flights are limited to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, it sets in motion a plan to reopen the country to international tourists and workers, both much needed to reinvigorate a fatigued nation.
Thailand is also welcoming vaccinated tourists, without quarantine, from Monday, as is Israel, in a boost to global air travel after a trying 18-month period.
Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday that the travel changes would immediately aid the economy.
“It’s a day for celebration – the fact that Australians can move more freely in and out of our country without home quarantine, if they’re double-vaccinated,” Frydenberg said.
Television and social media footage showed tearful family reunions, with strict travel rules previously prohibiting many people from attending significant events, including weddings and funerals.
The relaxation of travel rules is tied to rising vaccination rates with more than 80 percent of people aged 16 and older in Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, fully vaccinated.
Australians and permanent residents living abroad may now return, with foreign ministry data showing about 47,000 people are hoping to do so.
Most tourists – even vaccinated ones – have to wait to come to Australia, although vaccinated tourists from New Zealand will be allowed in from Monday. Citizens of Singapore will be able to travel to Australia, without quarantine, from Nov. 21.
Unvaccinated travelers will still face quarantine restrictions and all travelers need proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to boarding.
The change in travel rules, however, is not uniform across Australia, as the country’s states and territories have differing vaccination rates and health policies.
Western Australia, which takes in 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.
Australia previously let only a limited number of citizens and permanent residents return from abroad, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine period in a hotel at their own expense.
But the change has come as it switched a COVID-zero pandemic management strategy towards living with the virus through extensive vaccinations.
While the Delta outbreak kept Sydney and Melbourne in lockdowns for months until recently, Australia’s COVID-19 cases remain far lower than many comparable countries, with just over 170,500 infections and 1,735 deaths.