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Australia Warns COVID-19 Border Closures Could Last Into Late 2021

A shopping center attracts few shoppers in Sydney, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Australia's economy has suffered its sharpest quarterly drop since the Great Depression because of the pandemic.

In a further blow to the travel industry, Australia is warning its international borders are likely to stay closed because of COVID-19 restrictions until “late next year.” Foreign nationals were banned in March to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, and Australian citizens must get official permission to leave the country.

Last year, about 9 million overseas travelers arrived in Australia. The largest groups came from China, New Zealand and the United States. The pandemic has seen those numbers collapse.

COVID-19 has turned Australia into a fortress. Its borders were closed to foreign nationals in March, helping to contain the disease but inflicting enormous economic harm. Australia is in a recession for the first time in three decades.

The exclusion of overseas tourists and students intending to study in Australia has cost Australia billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Australian citizens and permanent residents are allowed to fly home, but they must pay for mandatory hotel quarantine on their return. Tens of thousands of people are stranded in other countries because of strict quotas on those allowed into the quarantine system. Australians need official permission from the government to leave the country.

Many of Australia’s internal borders also have also been closed to curb the spread of the virus.

Most states and territories have managed to contain the virus, but reopening the country will take time, according to the Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

“Domestic borders are assumed to reopen around the end of this year,” he said. “International travel, including by tourists and international students, is assumed to remain largely closed off until late next year and then gradually return over time. And a vaccine to be available around the end of 2021 is one of the assumptions in the budget.”

Large-scale immigration, which has fueled prosperity in Australia, will only resume when international borders are reopened.

By many global comparisons, Australia has mostly handled the pandemic well. It has recorded just over 27,000 coronavirus cases, and about 900 people have died.

Geography has been a key part in its pandemic strategy. Australia is a huge island, and restricting international travel has helped to limit the spread of COVID-19. Safely reconnecting with the rest of the world promises to be a monumental challenge for the authorities here, though.