If you’d been hanging on to the hope of dusting off your passport for Christmas, even just to scoot over the ditch for a New Zealand summer, you might want to pop those plans on ice.
Restrictions affecting overseas travel and cruise ships entering Australian waters have been extended by three months until mid-December, dashing hopes many of us had of a possible bubble with our Kiwi friends.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Thursday that the Federal Government will extend the human biosecurity emergency period under the Biosecurity Act 2015 until December 17.
The declaration, which has been in place since March 18, gives the Government “powers” to take measures necessary to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 in Australia such a restrictions on the entry of cruise ships into Australia, protections on the supply and sale of certain essential goods, restrictions on overseas travel and on retail stores at international airports.
Hunt said the decision was as a result of “specialist medical and epidemiological advice provided by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee”.
“AHPPC has advised that the international and domestic COVID-19 situation continues to pose an unacceptable public health risk,” he said.
“The extension of the emergency period is an appropriate response to that risk.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month said it was “unlikely” that our borders will open by Christmas, casting further doubt on a ‘trans-Tasman travel bubble’ for quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand now looking more like a 2021 proposition.
At a press conference on Friday he said while it might be possible for New Zealanders to come to Australia, it wouldn’t necessarily mean Australians going there.
“That will be up to the New Zealanders,” he said.
“But if we can get to a position where we understand how the hot spots can be identified in New Zealand, then that would mean, hopefully, between now and then [Christmas] we may well be in a position for New Zealanders to come to Australia and experience Australia, which will be great for our tourism industry.”
Tourism expect Dr David Beirman, from the University of Technology, said the likelihood of any corridor across the ditch “won’t be given any thought” – especially by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“Jacinda Ardern will be standing on her record of managing COVID-19 so I would not expect any real progress on the Trans -Tasman travel bubble in 2020,” Mr Beirman told news.com.au.
“In my view, the only international travel bubble which has any real chance of getting traction in early 2021 is a Bula Bubble centred on Fiji.”
Mr Beirman said the concept of establishing a bubble with some of the South Pacific islands is because Fiji, for example, have minimal cases of COVID-19.
“Australia is a massive market for Fiji. In 2019 of the 900,000 international visitors to Fiji, 370,000 were Australians,” he explained.
“Fiji is desperate to get their Aussie and Kiwi visitors back as tourism represents over 40 per cent of the national economy.”
Mr Beirman said because of the nature of holidays in Fiji (typically flop and drop at a hotel) the holidays are controlled and in an environment where they don’t typically interact with the majority of Fijians (apart from those working in resorts).
“This make them a very safe cohort of tourists from a pandemic perspective,” he explained.
“Fiji may insist that only tourists booked in resort based packages are allowed. It is worth noting that the method in which Thailand is planning to reopen international tourism would focus almost exclusively on Phuket resorts.”
With the majority of visitors to New Zealand tending to hit the road to get the most of their visit, this form of travel poses as a much greater heath risk, and one that will be playing on Ms Ardern’s decision to reopen.
“[Roadtrip visitors] are more difficult to track than those who visit the South Pacific Islands,” Mr Beirman said.
There are fears international travel will be off the cards for Australians until a vaccine becomes available, but Qantas boss Alan Joyce says a pre-flight COVID-19 test that could deliver results within 15 minutes could be the key to restarting overseas jaunts sooner.
Mr Joyce told an aviation conference earlier this week that developments in testing were a “reason to be optimistic” as uncertainly lingers over the future of international flying.
“There’s some great developments in testing that could resolve the issue of people needing to go into quarantine,” Mr Joyce said at Wednesday’s CAPA Australia Pacific Aviation Summit, according to Executive Traveller.
He said rapid pre-flight tests, which could potentially deliver results in as little as 15 minutes, could determine “whether you’re exposed to COVID-19, which means if you pass there’s no need to be in quarantine at the other end.”
Mr Beirman said that there are ample examples of international travel occurring in Europe involving countries with far worse COVID-19 case loads than Australia, with no vaccine.
And while he acknowledges a vaccine would be a “huge game changer” for the tourism sector, Australian government needs to “face a stark reality”.
“The travel outbound ban imposed by the Australian government is among the most draconian in the world,” he explained.
“It’s a matter for debate whether Australia is right and most of the rest of the world is wrong.
Unfortunately, the behaviour of government in our ‘fortress states’ and territories, notably QLD, SA, WA, TAS & NT add a vast level of complication and confusion to having a common Australian approach to international travel.”
Mr Beirman criticised the ongoing state border restrictions, saying the response by some state and territory leaders by closing the border to some jurisdictions and not others “is turning Australia into an open prison”.
“If we can be serious about travelling anywhere internationally we need to know that we will be treated the same way when arrive at our designated international destination and we get back home irrespective of whether we are from NSW, Victoria, WA or Queensland.
“This means some certainty in screening or quarantine regulations.”