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Australia to reopen to vaccinated tourists, two years after it closed international borders

Ground crew members drive their vehicles on the tarmac at Sydney Airport in November 2019. (Mark Baker/AP)
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SYDNEY — Australia will reopen to vaccinated international tourists later this month, effectively bringing to an end one of the world’s longest and strictest coronavirus border closures even as the country wrestles with an outbreak of the omicron variant.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Monday that the country would welcome double-vaccinated overseas tourists starting Feb. 21, almost two years after Australia’s near-complete border restrictions earned it the nicknames of “Fortress Australia” and the “Hermit Kingdom.”

With omicron outbreaks across the country and Australians among the most immunized people in the world, Morrison said it no longer made sense to keep out tourists who have had at least two shots.

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“The variant is here in Australia,” he told reporters. “And for those who are coming in who are double-vaccinated, they don’t present any greater risk than those who are already here in Australia. It’s a sensible and I think very important move for us to make as we … drive Australia back to a position of as much normality as we can achieve.”

Morrison stressed, however, that visitors would be expected to provide proof of vaccination.

“I think events earlier in the year should have sent a very clear message to everyone around the world that is the requirement to enter into Australia,” Morrison told reporters in an apparent allusion to the deportation of unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic last month.

Unvaccinated visitors must have an exemption and will have to quarantine according to local rules, added Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews.

The announcement comes as a boost to Australia’s struggling tourism industry and marks the latest phase in a gradual easing of restrictions that split some families and left tens of thousands of Australians stranded around the world.

For the first 18 months of the pandemic, Australia barred almost all visitors and required returning citizens and residents to pay for two weeks of costly hotel quarantine. Caps on returning Australians meant many were stuck overseas, unable to see ailing loved ones or attend weddings or funerals. Australians also needed to receive an exemption to leave the country.

Australia left thousands of citizens stranded abroad in the pandemic. But it let the French rugby team in.

Restrictions were lifted for immunized Australians in November after the country had given two doses of a coronavirus vaccine to 80 percent of its eligible population. International students, some foreign workers and family members of citizens and permanent residents were allowed to return in mid-December, despite an omicron outbreak causing one of the world’s sharpest spikes in infections.

With about 93 percent of Australians age 12 and above now double-jabbed and omicron present in every state and territory, Morrison said allowing tourists back in would not overload the nation’s hospital system with covid cases.

Infections in Australia have fallen sharply from their peak a month ago, while hospitalizations and the number of patients in intensive care have also begun to decline. The country reported around 23,000 new coronavirus infections and 46 deaths on Monday.

Western Australia, which has largely escaped the pandemic but is now facing a small omicron outbreak, has said it will remain closed to visitors — Australian and international — for several months as it increases booster coverage.

Almost 10 million international tourists visited Australia in 2019, spending more than $30 billion in the country — a number that plunged to next to nothing last year, according to Tourism Australia.

Though Australia began allowing tourists from a few countries in December, Monday’s announcement nonetheless came as a welcome shock to many in the tourism industry as beleaguered Australian travel stocks soared.

“Over the two years since the borders have been closed the industry has been on its knees,” Australian Tourism Export Council managing director Peter Shelley told Reuters. “Now we can turn our collective efforts toward rebuilding an industry that is in disrepair.”

“We’re all jumping for joy,” Naomi Avramovic, general manager of the Sydney Backpackers hostel, said in an interview. Over the past two years, the hostel had become a home for people who had fallen on hard times during the pandemic or been stranded by state or international border closures, she said. But covid restrictions had reduced occupancy to around 30 percent, leaving the business struggling.

“We are very, very excited to see some new faces and to get Australia back to what it was like before covid happened,” she said of a potential influx of tourists. “I feel like March is going to hit us all like a ton of bricks and we’re not going to know what to do with all the people, but I’m definitely looking forward to [it].”

Read more:

Australia to ease covid travel ban, shedding ‘Hermit Kingdom’ tag

With Novak Djokovic deported, Australian Open begins under omicron cloud

‘Covid hit us like a cyclone’: An Aboriginal town in the Australian Outback is overwhelmed

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