Sydney’s international airport came alive with tears, embraces and laughter on Monday as Australia’s border opened for the first time in 20 months, with some arriving travellers tearing away mandatory masks to see the faces of long-missed loved ones.
Australia is betting that vaccination rates are now high enough to mitigate the danger of allowing international visitors again after maintaining some of the lengthiest and strictest border controls anywhere during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Sydney was Australia’s busiest international airport but until Monday it had been almost deserted.
The new freedoms mean that outbound fully vaccinated Australian permanent residents and citizens can leave the country for any reason without asking the government for an exemption from a travel ban that has trapped most at home since March 2020.
Incoming vaccinated Australians are able to come home without quarantining in a hotel for two weeks, with the cap on hotel quarantine numbers previously a major obstacle for thousands of Australians stranded overseas. That cap now only applies to unvaccinated travellers.
“Just being able to come home without having to go to quarantine is huge,” Carly Boyd, a passenger who had travelled from New York, told reporters at Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith Airport, where Peter Allen’s unofficial national anthem I Still Call Australia Home was playing.
“There’s a lot of people on that flight who have loved ones who are about to die or have people who died this week. So for them to be able to get off the plane and go see them straight away is pretty amazing,” Ms Boyd added.
Sydney was the first Australian airport to announce it would reopen because New South Wales was the first state where 80% of the population aged 16 and older have been fully vaccinated.
The country’s second largest city Melbourne and the national capital Canberra also opened on Monday after Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory achieved the vaccination benchmark.
Sydney had 16 scheduled inbound international flights on Monday and 14 outbound, while Melbourne had five scheduled in and five out.
Thailand was also reopening its border on Monday, with fully vaccinated tourists arriving by air from 46 countries and territories no longer having to quarantine.
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