By Rocio Otoya
Sydney, Australia, Feb 21 (EFE).- Australia reopened its borders on Monday to welcome international tourists for the first time since borders were closed in March 2020.
From the first of almost 60 international flights scheduled for the day, tears and hugs between family and friends were mixed with music, local food and stuffed koalas and kangaroos given out to arrivals.
Sydney Anderson was waiting at Sydney airport for her daughter who lives in the United States and who had been denied a visa to travel to Australia four times.
“We haven’t seen her for two and a half years, so we’re very excited,” Anderson told public broadcaster SBS.
The reopening of international borders for fully vaccinated foreigners who meet certain travel requirements will allow them to travel around almost the entire country without the need for quarantine, except for Western Australia, which will lift restrictions on Mar. 3.
Unvaccinated foreigners without a valid medical exemption must apply for special permission to enter Australia and undergo quarantine in the country, which has enforced some of the strictest border closures and lockdowns in the world.
Monday’s arrivals meant the reactivation of the tourism sector, which is Australia’s fourth largest export activity.
“The thousands of international tourists arriving this week and many more over the coming months will help kickstart the tourism industry which has done it tough for the past couple of years,” Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement.
Qantas, which will open new routes in March, reported that it will fly 14,000 passengers into the country this week, while Tourism Minister Dan Tehan told reporters at Sydney airport he expects the sector to see a “very, very strong rebound.”
The tourism sector, which employs some 660,000 people, contributed some AU$60.8 billion ($43.8 billion) to GDP in 2018-19, according to official data. Then the borders closed.
This measure resulted in a 99.3 percent drop in the number of international travelers in the 12 months prior to March 2021, compared to the previous year, and a 98.1 percent drop in foreign visitor spending.
Tourism Australia has allocated AU$40 million for a campaign to attract foreign visitors in this new stage in which the borders will not be closed and the population will not be confined.
But the chief executive of Victoria’s Tourism Industry Council, Felicia Mariani, told public broadcaster ABC that it could take “anywhere from two to three years for us to get back to the type of international visitation and spend that we were seeing prior to the pandemic.”
Australia, which has overcome three waves of Covid-19 that mainly affected Sydney and Melbourne, was hit hard by the Omicron variant when it began to reopen its borders in November and went from fewer than 2,000 daily cases in December to an average of more than 100,000 in the middle of January.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, this country of 25 million inhabitants has accumulated more than 3 million cases and almost 5,000 deaths, although it already has 95 percent of its target population fully vaccinated and is accelerating administration of booster shots. EFE