SYDNEY :Australia on Monday fully reopened its international borders to travellers vaccinated against the coronavirus after nearly two years of pandemic-related closings 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 in Sydney, its largest city, as the tourism and hospitality sectors look to rebuild after getting hammered by COVID-19 restrictions.
"It is a very exciting day, one that I have been looking forward to for a long time, from the day that I first shut that border right at the start of the pandemic," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in the island state of Tasmania, which relies heavily on tourism.
Airports witnessed emotional reunions, including that of Sue Witton, who had not seen her son Simon for two years.
"Seven hundred and twenty-four days apart and it means the world to me. I don't want to let him go, it's just beautiful. Thank you for having me back. I'm just so grateful, so, so grateful," she told reporters at the Melbourne airport.
Tourism is one of Australia's biggest industries, worth more than A$60 billion ($43 billion) and employing about 5per cent of the country's workforce. But the sector was crippled after the country shut its borders in March 2020.
"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 gave travellers gift jars of Vegemite, an iconic Australian condiment, and stuffed koala toys.
Tehan said he was hopeful for a "very strong" rebound in the tourism market, with Qantas looking to fly more than 14,000 passengers into Australia this week. Virgin Australia said it was seeing positive trends in domestic bookings and continued to assess demand for international flights.
All trains in Sydney, meanwhile, were cancelled on Monday after pay disputes between the union and the state government, taking some shine off the reopening.
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 about 2.7 million confirmed cases has been detected since the emergence of Omicron in late November. Total deaths stood at 4,929.
Just over 15,600 new cases and 17 deaths were registered by midday on Monday with two states due to report later.
($1 = 1.3959 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Byron Kaye; Editing by Grant McCool and Gerry Doyle)