Tensions rise over travel standstill

A bottleneck forms at the NSW/Victoria border after the announcement the border would be closed from midnight on July 8. Picture: Getty Images

A bottleneck forms at the NSW/Victoria border after the announcement the border would be closed from midnight on July 8. Picture: Getty Images

This is not where we thought we would be at the end of August, figuratively ... and possibly literally. At the end of the first round of lockdowns in Australia, there was such a sense of optimism as the restrictions began to be lifted and we were allowed to travel again. State borders were gradually reopened and people popped over to Melbourne or Sydney to see friends or family, or followed the whales on a winter migration up the coast to Queensland.

For a travel writer like me, it was quite an exciting time. Not just because my profession is predicated on the ability to actually travel, but because I was looking forward to seeing more of Australia. I had started planning trips to South Australia to explore the wine regions around Adelaide and the rugged landscapes of the Flinders Ranges. I was putting together an itinerary for Tasmania, blending the culture and heritage around Hobart with the dramatic coastlines.

And then it all came to a grinding halt again for so many of us. Just a few days after I returned from the tropical beaches and rainforest up north, Queensland closed its borders once more. Tasmania and South Australia pushed back much of their plans to allow interstate travel. And poor Victoria, as we all know, went into the strictest lockdown since the pandemic began.

But this time it feels different. August is not April and the mentality of solidarity that saw the whole country push through to beat the virus is weaker this time. And, aside from the dire situation in Melbourne, a lot of tension is starting to show around the issue of state borders and travel restrictions.

Last week, Qantas boss Alan Joyce took aim at the haphazard nature of state border closures, pointing out there was not always logic to the decisions.

Why can't someone from South Australia go for a holiday in Tasmania, for example?

"We have this situation where there are large numbers of states and territories that have zero cases and they're not even open to each other," he said at a press conference.

And earlier this week, the Business Council of Australia made a similar point in an open letter to the National Cabinet, writing that "we accept that states and territories have the right to ease - or reimpose - restrictions at a different pace based on medical advice among other factors. However, many of the border measures imposed to date appear to be arbitrary and lacking timeframes and review or end dates".

There are obviously good reasons for many of the restrictions we still have in place and nobody (other than perhaps a few Karens) is arguing that travel restrictions should be lifted for Melbourne at the moment. But why can't someone from South Australia go for a holiday in Tasmania, for example? Or from the Northern Territory to Western Australia? Some industry groups believe it's more about politics than health policy.

What seems clear is that there needs to be a consistent approach across the country for when borders should be closed - and then a reasonable timeline for reopening them again. The Tasmanian Government has at least indicated the earliest date it will consider allowing interstate travel, but you do have to wonder whether that date of December 1 really has to be that far away.

Industry lobby groups and companies like Qantas push the point that our economy is suffering because of these border closures. In a lot of the conversations I have on this topic, much of the discussion is also about economics and the effects on small tourism operators. But I think it's also important to think about the social and cultural impact of restricting travel.

We don't just travel to relax, we also travel to learn. We meet people from different communities and find common ground; we discover how our ecosystems are so interdependent; we understand the fragility in our native flora and fauna; and we are encouraged by the innovation and perseverance of all the independent and family-run businesses that make the experience so special.

This is a unique time in our history. For most people it's difficult and there are countless dreadful things about this period. But it seemed a silver lining was going to be the opportunity for lots of us to be able to do more travel than usual in Australia, to connect with others across the country, and develop a deeper appreciation for the natural beauty we're blessed with.

Keeping state borders closed doesn't just deprive businesses of income, it deprives travellers of the richness of those experiences. While the health and safety of every citizen should obviously be the priority, it's also time for governments to listen to the chorus of voices calling for more sensible policies around domestic travel restrictions and state border closures.

Who knows when we will be freely travelling internationally again, but it will happen at some point, and many Australians will probably jump straight onto planes for cheaper and easier international holidays. It would be a shame if, by the time that happens, they haven't been able to explore their own country and see what they're missing each time they go overseas.

Michael Turtle is writing about his trips around the country at the Travel Australia Today website.