Where will we head to first when international borders reopen?

With 2021 around the corner, and travel bubbles such as the trans-Tasman corridor on the horizon, it’s hard to resist not dusting off your passport.

While airline bosses have hinted at a COVID-19 vaccine being the key to opening international travel, others have their money on well-formed bubbles as kickstarting overseas tourism once again.

Since March 2020, Australians have been banned from travelling abroad unless an application for a special exemption is approved followed by a two-week quarantine period costing thousands of dollars on return.

Now, like the rest of the world, the crystal ball of travel is ever-changing. Borders go up, borders come down.

Here’s where we will likely travel to in 2021. Picture: Gaye Gerard/NCA NewsWireSource:News Corp Australia

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Earlier this month, former federal chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy cautioned that there’s still a long way to go before Australia can return to quarantine-free international travel.

Prof Murphy said the border ban may need to stay in place for longer than expected until experts know more about how the vaccine works, particularly among carriers who are not showing any symptoms.

Currently, the nation’s borders are shut until March 2021, with cruise ships docking at Australian ports under the same ban.

Given the soaring cases in parts of Europe, the UK, the US and even Japan, there are concerns of how – and with what countries – bubbles will be developed.

Two Australian tourism experts have broken down how they think international travel bubbles may unfold in early 2021 – with some surprising locations in the mix of possible places we will visit.

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Tourism experts say the domestic travel market will continue to boom in 2021. Picture: Damian Shaw/NCA NewsWireSource:News Corp Australia

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Professor Bruce Prideaux from Queensland’s CQ University, believes Australia has developed in to a “small” exclusive group amid the pandemic, that could quickly become part of a travel bubble “group”.

“An interesting situation has emerged where the world can be divided into a very small group of countries including Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam that have managed to beat the coronavirus and the rest of the world that continues to suffer from large scale community transmission,” he told news.com.au.

“The imminent promise of mass vaccination programs in Europe and the US is unlikely to change this two world division for some time. There are numerous questions about vaccines. What percentage of the population with be vaccinated? How long will vaccination programs take? How long will the vaccine be effective for? Will vaccines protect children and so on. It will be many months before the answers to these questions become clear.”

International travel has been off the cards for Australians, unless an exemption is granted, since March 2020. Picture: Andrew Henshaw/NCA NewsWireSource:News Corp Australia

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Prof Prideaux said future decisions on international travel by Australians and New Zealanders will ultimately be determined by how our governments want to defend their “COVID-free status”.

“The likely response to demands to resume international travel will be the creation of travel bubbles to other countries that have managed to remain coronavirus-free without vaccines,” he said.

“The next step is likely to be a gradual reopening to countries that have demonstrated that their vaccination programs have been effective. But even then I think we can expect a requirement for a ‘vaccination’ passport and for visitors to be tested before arrival and on arrival.”

Prof Prideaux said the big fear with launching bubbles is sudden borders closures, which are “lurking” in the background even for domestic travel.

Qantas has previously indicated that passengers flying overseas will be required to have the vaccine should they wish to travel with the airline.Source:Getty Images

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“The reopening of all domestic borders will provide the domestic tourism industry with great opportunities,” he said.

“But lurking in the background is the threat of sudden border closures as recently occurred with South Australia. This threat will remain while the danger for reintroduction of the virus from returning Australians remains.”

Dr David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology, said while he predicts domestic travel to be relatively unrestricted from December 2020 and beyond, a vaccine is the only probable “game changer” for the international circuit.

“The likely adoption and introduction of a vaccine which the government has flagged will kick in from early April in Australia … will be a significant game changer,” he told news.com.au.

“Of course DFAT will need to revise its international travel ban (with exceptions) I suspect that the ending of that ban will likely coincide with the introduction of the vaccine.”

Dr Beirman said the bubbles will roll out country by country, and is not surprised it will start with New Zealand.

Trips to Fiji could be on the horizon in 2021, if a ‘Bula Bubble’ is launched.Source:Supplied

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“New Zealand will be followed by Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia (being the extended Bula Bubble).

“Other Pacific Island nations which may open up [to] travel will include Cook Islands, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga but I suspect these will be after the Bula Bubble.

“The next cabs off the rank are likely to be Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and perhaps China, all of which have done a great job in controlling the virus.”

Subject to DFAT ending its travel bans, Aussies could be travelling to these countries sometime in the first half of 2021 in time for the Tokyo Olympics, Dr Beirman said

But, he said, it’s no surprise which countries will be off the travel list for a good while yet, including trips to Aussie favourite Bali.

Tourism expert Dr David Beirman says trips to Bali are a long way off yet.Source:Getty Images

“Given the massive rates of the pandemic in Indonesia and India I don’t expect much tourism happening in 2021,” he said.

“Thailand, a much-loved destination for Australians is also proving to be very resistant to reopening up tourism any time soon.

Depending how well the vaccinations work on stabilising COVID-19, at the most optimistic, two-way tourism between Australia and North & South America, Europe and the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean and Africa is unlikely to recommence until late 2021 at absolute best and more likely in 2022.”

As for cruising, which is a $5 billion industry in Australia and has been decimated by the pandemic, resumption of domestic voyages could well make a return in early 2021.

“I thinks it’s safe to suggest cruising may well kick off in early 2021 and we should see a limited return of ships in Sydney Harbour with widespread cruising in Australian waters,

followed by trans-Tasman and the SW Pacific cruising,” Dr Beirman said.

Cruising may we see a domestic start in early 2021.Source:Supplied

“With a bit of luck, some Asian countries may be accessible for cruise ships. I’m sure Japan would love to see cruise ships coming for the Olympic Games subject to guaranteed COVID controls.”

With the government extending the ban on cruising for three months until March 2021, Prof Prideaux suspects the resumption of cruising will be staged.

“The resumption of cruising is likely to be staged with the first cruises to domestic ports only and a later extension to New Zealand and then other Pacific nations that remain virus-free,” he predicted, noting the big question will be around how cruise liners adapt to a post-COVID world and who will survive.

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