Sydney’s international airport came alive with emotional scenes of tears, hugs and laughter on Monday as Australia’s border opened for the first time in 20 months.
Some arriving travellers tore away mandatory masks to see faces of loved ones they’ve been separated from for so long.
International borders re-opened for fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents, with no quarantine necessary and no caps on international arrivals into Sydney.
Travellers were welcomed by airline staff holding banners and were gifted Australian wildflowers and chocolate biscuits.
“Just being able to come home without having to go to quarantine is huge,” arriving passenger Carly Boyd 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,” Boyd added.
Incoming vaccinated Australians are able to come home without quarantining in a hotel for two weeks. The cap on hotel quarantine numbers had been a major obstacle for thousands of Australians stranded overseas. That cap now only applies to unvaccinated travellers.
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.
One family arriving from the United Arab Emirates had waited a year and half to be able to come back to Australia.
Talking to local media, the family's father said "this is a big deal. We've been locked out and to finally have this chance to come back, it's just amazing, so we're a bit overwhelmed and we just can't wait to see our family”.
Australia closed its international border a year and a half ago in one of the world’s toughest responses to the Covid pandemic, barring citizens as well as foreign travellers from exiting or entering the country unless given an exemption.
The strict rules meant Australians had missed out on significant events such as weddings and funerals and were prevented from seeing relatives and friends.
Listen to our latest coronavirus podcast
Australians like Justine, who was travelling from London, were distressed by the long wait she had endured to return home to visit her ailing father.
She said she had not seen her father since before the pandemic "and now he's very, very sick", saying it was "appalling" how Australia had treated its citizens abroad.
"The rest of the world has opened up, I'm fully vaccinated, been vaccinated for months now, like, I'm an Australian citizen and I haven't been able to go back into my own country and I've been able to travel to every other country except Australia. I haven't seen my dad in two years and now he's very, very sick so, it's appalling how Australia has treated us", she said.
The country had previously only allowed a limited number of citizens and permanent residents to return from abroad, with a compulsory 14-day quarantine period in a hotel at their own expense.
Some exemptions were also allowed for foreign travellers on economic grounds, including, controversially, some Hollywood stars.
Sydney was the first Australian airport to announce it would reopen on Monday because New South Wales was the first state where 80% of the population aged 16 and older have been fully vaccinated.
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. Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, had five scheduled in and five out. Canberra had none.
An Australian who lives in San Francisco, who identified himself only as Jeremy, said he had been trying to fly back to Sydney with his wife and baby daughter since July.
They had been prevented at short notice four times from flying, twice because flights were delayed and twice because quarantine caps had been reduced in response to the Covid delta variant taking hold in Sydney in June.
“At every moment until we were sitting on the plane, it just felt like something was going to go wrong and I’m so glad that it all worked out and that we’re here," Jeremy told Australian Broadcasting Corp at Sydney's airport.
Initially only Australian permanent residents and citizens will be free to enter the country. Fully vaccinated foreigners traveling on skilled worker and student visas will be given priority over international tourists.
But now the government expects Australia will welcome international tourists back before the year ends to some degree.