CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — International tourists and business travelers began arriving in Australia with few restrictions on Monday, bringing together families in tearful reunions after separations of two years or longer forced by some of the most draconian pandemic measures of any democracy in the world.
Australia closed its borders to tourists in March 2020 in a bid to reduce the local spread of COVID-19, but on Monday removed its final travel restrictions for fully vaccinated passengers.
Tearful British tourist Sue Witton hugged her adult son Simon Witton when he greeted her at Melbourne’s airport.
“Seven hundred and twenty-four (days) apart and he’s my only son, and I’m alone, so this means the world to me,” she told reporters.
Travelers were greeted at Sydney’s airport by jubilant well-wishers waving toy koalas and favorite Australian foods including Tim Tams chocolate cookies and jars of Vegemite spread.
Federal Tourism Minister Dan Tehan was on hand to welcome the first arrivals on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles which landed at 6:20 a.m. local time.
“I think there’ll be a very strong rebound in our tourism market. Our wonderful experiences haven’t gone away,” Tehan said.
Danielle Vogl, who lives in Canberra, and her Florida-based partner Eric Lochner have been separated since October 2019 by the travel restrictions.
She said she burst into tears when she heard about the lifting of the restrictions, which will allow them to reunite in April.
“I actually woke him up to tell him, because I thought it was big enough news to do that,” Vogl told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“He couldn’t believe it. … He was like ‘Are you sure, is this true?’ and I’m like ‘Yes, it’s happening. This is over now: we can be together again,’” she added.
Lochner was not eligible for an exemption from the travel ban because the couple weren’t married or living together.
“It’s been a very long and very cruel process for us,” Vogl said.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said all travelers’ vaccination status would be checked before they arrived to avoid a repeat of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa debacle.
Djokovic was issued with a visa through an automated process before he left Spain to compete in the Australian Open in January but was deported after he arrived in Melbourne because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison said she expected tourist numbers would take two years to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
“This is a really great start,” Harrison said. “This is what the industry had been asking us for, you know, just give us our international guests back and we will take it from there.”
Qantas on Monday was bringing in passengers from eight overseas destinations including Vancouver, Singapore, London and New Delhi.
The Sydney-based airline’s chief executive Alan Joyce said bookings have been strong since the federal government announced two weeks ago that the country was relaxing restrictions.
“It has been a tough two years for everybody in the tourism industry, but today is really one of the big steps on the way back to a full recovery so we are very excited,” Joyce said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 1.2 million people had visas to enter Australia with 56 international flights due to touch down in the first 24 hours of the border reopening.
Australia on Monday reported 17,736 new COVID-19 infections and 34 deaths. Australia’s death toll since the pandemic began is 4,929.
Australia imposed some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions on its citizens and permanent residents in March 2020 to prevent them from bringing COVID-19 home.
Travelers had to apply for an exemption from the travel ban, but tourism wasn’t an accepted reason. International students and skilled migrants were prioritized when the border restrictions were relaxed in November in response to an increasing vaccination rate among the Australian population. Tourists from New Zealand, Japan and South Korea were also allowed in early.
Australian states and territories also have their own COVID-19 rules. The strictest are in Western Australia state, which covers a third of the island continent.