SYDNEY -- Australia on Monday fully reopened its international borders to travelers vaccinated against the coronavirus after nearly two years of being shut in the pandemic as tourists returned and hundreds of people were reunited with family and friends.
More than 50 international flights will reach the country through the day, including 27 touching down at Sydney, its largest city, as the tourism and hospitality sectors look to rebuild after getting hammered by COVID-19 restrictions.
"It is a party out here, music playing, smiles on people's faces, they will be dancing soon, I'm sure," Tourism Minister Dan Tehan told broadcaster ABC from Sydney airport as he welcomed travellers with a jar of Vegemite, an essential Australian staple, and stuffed Koala toys.
Tehan said there would a "very strong" rebound in the tourism market with Qantas Airways Ltd looking to fly more than 14,000 passengers into Australia this week.
Tourism is one of Australia's biggest industries, worth more than A$60 billion (about P2.2 trillion) and employing about 5% of the country's workforce. But the sector was crippled after the country shut its borders in March 2020.
"This is an important day for our industry and the first, but most important step in getting Australian tourism back on its feet," Australian Tourism Export Council Managing Director Peter Shelley said.
Once a champion of COVID-suppression strategy, Australia shifted away from its fortress-style controls and relentless lockdowns since late last year and began living with the virus after reaching higher vaccination levels. Skilled migrants, international students and backpackers have been allowed to fly into Australia since November in a staggered reopening exercise.
As borders fully reopen, Australia's outbreak of the omicron coronavirus variant appears to have passed its peak with hospital admissions steadily falling over the past three weeks. The bulk of Australia's pandemic total of around 2.7 million confirmed cases has been detected since the emergence of omicron in late November. Total deaths stood at 4,913.