Australia: from Leader to Laggard

By Walter Nand.

Skål International Sydney

As I write this more than half of the Australian population is in yet another Covid-19 lockdown.

The epicentre of the latest outbreak is in Western Sydney in New South Wales.

I am currently not allowed to travel more than 10km’s from home while people on the other side of the road (officially in a separate district) can only venture 5km’s. State borders are closed and businesses are struggling to survive. 

We are watching people in other countries get vaccinated, open up and many people have started travelling again. Or, equally significantly, people are making travel plans well into 2022-2023.

Meanwhile, Australia’s international borders remain firmly closed for both inbound and outbound travellers (including our own citizens) with little insight into when we can start travelling again.

It was only a year or so ago that the Australian government was being lauded as an example of how to handle this global pandemic and keep its citizens safe. The government made the decision to lock down early and cease all inbound and out bound traffic. It certainly helps that we are an island. Ok, a huge island, but an island nonetheless. This means no one can sneak across our borders (in either direction). We felt very fortunate to live here.

Now we are being mocked around the world (including on webinars I have attended) as being laggards in the fight to get the world reopened for travel. How did this happen and where do we do from here? The answers are both simplistic and complex. 

The choice to close our international borders at the start of the pandemic was, in my opinion, the correct decision. We watched as the virus surged around the world while we remained relatively safe. Sure, we had outbreaks but these have been relatively contained. The state of Victoria fared the worst and have had to withstand six ‘hard’ lockdowns. But compared to the rest of the world we remained relatively safe. 

Unfortunately, this safety created complacency and hesitancy with the vaccine roll out. The Federal Government has given mixed messages about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine that has caused confusion. As a result, many are holding out for the Pfizer vaccine which is not as readily available due to supply issues (AstraZeneca is being manufactured in Australia).

Another difficulty, is that all six States and two Territories act independently of each other. Interstate borders are constantly being opened and closed, often with very little notice, and there is no clear pathway to reopening Australia to world. This erodes consumer confidence in forward planning.

The Federal Government has given us a ‘framework’ for re-opening which is very vague and has no definitive timeline. All the travel and tourism organisations including AFTA, CATO, CLIA and the airlines are constantly putting pressure on the government for answers but seem to be making little headway.

So, what now?

Getting fully vaccinated seems to be the path forward and with our current lockdown in Sydney, we have seen vaccination hesitancy numbers drop significantly. Those I have spoken to after they have been vaccinated (even after only their first dose) describe a sense of relief. I can echo their sentiments after receiving my first dose. As vaccination rates increase, consumer confidence in future travel is growing.

Realistically, Australians will not be travelling internationally this year – with the possible exemption of a more consistent travel bubble with New Zealand.

Based on the current information, and despite our current lockdown, I am of the belief that the Australian borders will be open by mid-2022 at the latest. This may be with some caveats such as all inbound travellers needing to be fully vaccinated and have a covid-19 test on arrival. Indications by some of the major airlines suggest that outbound passengers will need to show proof of vaccination before being allowed to board an international flight. 

One of my businesses, Unique Cruises, is starting to see an increase in inquiry for Luxury Hotel Barge cruises in France, Italy, Ireland and the UK from June 2022 onwards which is exciting. My other business, Ride The World Motorcycle Tours, are reworking our motorcycle tours for Australia, the USA and Europe starting in June 2022 and reintroducing India, South Africa and Vietnam in 2023. We are seeing an increased interest in our ‘Elite’ suite of tours which cater for the ‘more discerning motorcyclist’ than with the more price conscious range of tours.

Many of us in the travel and tourism industry believe that as soon as our borders are open, we will see a tsunami of travellers wanting to get off the island and see the world. Those of us who are planning for this will do very well. Those who are hesitant, and wait until the official government announcement that the borders will reopen, run the risk of missing the wave and will have to scramble to catch up.

Most importantly however, my fellow Australian Skålleagues and I cannot wait to attend the Skål International World Congress in Croatia in 2022. To help us celebrate, Unique Cruses has released a special Skål journey incorporating the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express luxury train form London to Venice followed by an exclusive charter of a Luxury Hotel Barge. We look forward to catching up, face to face, with all our friends and fellow Skålleagues from all over the world. Skål!

Yours in Skål

Walter Nand

Walter Nand is a passionate member of Skål International Sydney, where he is the Immediate Past President. In 2019, Walter was instrumental in organising Skål International Australia's 100th National Assembly and is looking forward to celebrating with everyone in Croatia in 2022.