Qantas has reopened bookings for overseas flights from July sparking hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Australians hoping to jet off overseas this year.
The airline had previously suspended flights to the US and UK until October but confirmed it has brought forward the take-off date to mid-year and will be taking bookings for its entire overseas network.
It’s a move that caught the federal government off guard.
“International borders will be opened when international arrivals do not pose a risk to Australians,” Transport Minister Michael McCormack said.
“The Australian government is working on travel arrangements with countries, such as New Zealand, that have low community infections.
“Operations and ticket sales on particular routes are commercial decisions for airlines.”
Those hoping that an earlier roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine (it’s been brought forward two weeks to early March) would mean a speedy return to quarantine-free long-haul travel, Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy said that wouldn’t be the case as experts will need more time to understand how the vaccines work with transmission.
Late last year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Wellington will allow quarantine-free travel to and from Australia in the first quarter of 2021.
But has the trans-Tasman bubble been put on ice due to Sydney’s Northern Beaches cluster in New South Wales? At the time, New Zealand said it was “monitoring” the situation but said “it’s too early” to make a call on whether the outbreak will impact when the bubble may begin.
“We’re monitoring the situation closely, but it’s too early to make any decisions based on the current community cases in New South Wales. Decisions on whether or not to proceed with a travel bubble will occur in the new year and we will assess the situation at that point,” a New Zealand government spokesperson said.
“Our Government has always been clear that we will reopen to other countries only when it is safe to do so and when very robust contingency plans have been agreed.”
While it’s expected Prime Minister Scott Morrison will soon sign off a trans-Tasman bubble, he said he has “no plans” to immediately lift border bans and he does not expect international long-haul travel to resume as normal by the end of 2021.
Australia closed its international borders early in the pandemic, and now, apart from New Zealanders, only allows 6,290 returning citizens to fly into the country per week, meaning tens of thousands of Australians are still trying to get home.
The ban on overseas travel from Australia still exists — you can’t leave the country unless you get a special exemption from the Department of Home Affairs.
So, with a vaccine on the horizon and rules changing rapidly again, what’s the latest on where and when we can travel?
Here’s what the experts are saying:
When is the trans-Tasman bubble happening?
While New Zealand has not set a date that Australians will be able to travel across the ditch, Ardern said there are still a few factors that need to be ironed out.
Coronavirus case numbers and community transmission will need to be under control in both countries. Australia must sign off on the deal, and a repatriation plan must be in place to get Kiwis home if there is a substantial outbreak in Australia in 2021.
The first phase of the bubble was introduced in October when New South Wales and the Northern Territory opened their borders to Kiwis without hotel isolation. Queensland has since done the same.
Will UK’s new mutant strain affect borders and travel?
Australia is reportedly considering blocking Australian arrivals from the UK and South Africa as the countries struggle to deal with mutant coronavirus strands, according to news.com.au.
This is despite Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly saying in December Australia won’t shut its borders with the UK as it was still prioritising bringing home Australians who are stranded there.
“They’re our number-one priority. They have been for a long time,” Kelly told media in December.
“We’ve committed to get people back, whoever wants to come back, and the Australian Government is assisting many people, whether they’re stuck overseas or whether they’re wanting to come back to have those assisted flights and so forth.
“In terms of where those Australians are right now who want to come back, the UK is right up there as one of the major places.”
A mutant strain of coronavirus sweeping across London and the south east of England has prompted EU nations to start restricting inbound flights from the UK.
Professor Kelly said that of the almost 2,500 cases that have been diagnosed in hotel quarantine since March, four are people with UK’s variant strain.
When will Australians be able to travel to Europe and the USA?
Apart from travelling to New Zealand, Australians have a long way to go before they can use their passports again, according to Professor Rico Merkert from Sydney University’s Institute of Transport and Logistics.
“Given that there won’t be a vaccine rollout to all countries by then, and that not even the US will be fully vaccinated by that time, I believe that the travel ban will be further extended to mid-June 2021,” he told HuffPost Australia.
Brendan Murphy, who led Australia’s coronavirus response, recently ruled out a resumption of long-haul flight holidays, saying it could still be another year before experts grasp the effectiveness of vaccines.
“We still don’t know what the vaccines will do in terms of complete prevention of transmission of the virus,” he said.
“So the vaccines can prevent disease. We know that very clearly. The extent to which they will effectively prevent, for example, asymptomatic transmission or people bringing the virus with them when they travel, we still have to find out.”
Morrison echoed Murphy’s statements earlier this month when he told Channel 7 he doesn’t expect the travel ban to be lifted in the first half of next year.
“I hope that we can see international travel resume well into next year but I’m not expecting it, really, certainly not in the first quarter of next year,” he said.
“In the quarter after that, a lot would have to change to see that happening at any sort of industrial scale.”
Merkert agrees, adding that we should keep an eye on what the major airlines are planning as an indicator of when things will go back to normal.
Travel after June 2021 “is much more realistic,” he said, and is “one of the reasons that Qantas is not planning to operate any flights to either Europe or the US before mid to end of next year.”
What about other travel bubbles?
While New Zealand and the Cook Islands agreed to open a quarantine-free travel bubble by March next year, Australia has yet to secure a second bubble with another region.
Merkert said it’s not far-fetched to consider travel bubbles with other COVID-safe countries.
“Perhaps even a bubble with Fiji could happen by March 2021,” he said.
“But the other two bubbles that were under consideration, namely with Japan and Singapore, will most likely not happen before June 2021.”
“The issue with the latter two bubbles is that once international hubs get involved, travellers will come from all parts of the world and will mingle with the local populations of the two bubbles. This then creates a logistical nightmare in terms of contact tracing and ensuring that what is created is a fenced-off or isolated bubble between two COVID-19 safe populations.”
Will travel be cheaper after COVID-19?
According to Luke Wilson, area manager for Australia at Booking.com, holidaymakers will demand better value once overseas travel resumes.
Research from the online booking agent highlights that two-thirds of global travellers expect agents to support their future travel plans via promotions.
“The financial legacy of coronavirus will inevitably see people demand more bang for their buck,” he said, adding that “63% of travellers will be more price-conscious when it comes to searching and planning a trip, 51% will consider refundable accommodation a must-have, and 38% want the flexibility to change dates without being charged.”
Alex Ozdowski, director of Australia for Expedia, said that based on past data, the ideal day to book your flights is a Sunday.
“This is when Aussies could save around 25% on domestic airfares and almost 15% on international flights versus booking on a Friday,” he said.
“Choosing what day to depart is also key in saving a few extra dollars. For international travel, lowest ticket prices have historically been on a Tuesday or Thursday, where Aussies can save nearly 20%.”
Do we actually want to travel again?
Travel brands claim they’re seeing pent-up demand. Data from Expedia’s 2021 Travel Trends report shows Aussies are seeking out favourite destinations, with Bali, Fiji and Oahu among the 10 most-searched destinations for 2021.
“Searches by Australians for travel in 2021 have increased by 39% over the last month,” Skyscanner’s Paul Whiteway told HuffPost Australia, adding that demand for domestic travel was still far eclipsing searches for overseas journeys.
“January is the most-searched month for travel in 2021, suggesting Australians are planning to get away during the height of summer holidays, as soon as possible,” he said.
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