Some of Australia's top travel experts have sent a warning ahead of the international border reopening, claiming the country has an uphill battle to bring arrivals back to the beach.
Tourism Australia Managing Director Phillipa Harrison appeared at a panel discussion at the Sydney Summit 22 on Monday among a number of other experts, called Pathways back to a global destination.
She warned Australia is "in very real danger of losing our market share if we don't get this right", as the federal government announced that Australia's borders will reopen in two weeks' time — from February 21 — welcoming fully vaccinated arrivals on all types of visas without the need for quarantine.
"We need to recognise that in this moment there are bigger competitors, there is so much competition for the global wallet right now," Ms Harrison said.
Professor and Director of Culture Strategy at Sydney University agreed, saying: "Fortress Australia as a mindset really has set, and we can't underestimate the challenge of reopening".
Writer and broadcaster Nick Bryant said Fortress Australia was the "severing of Australia from the rest of the world … the tyranny of distance became a great advantage in many ways, but has also had terrible consequences".
Ms Harrison later discussed how Australia's international reputation had copped a beating since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We were initially envied and now we're a little bit ridiculed in terms of how we are managing this," she told the Sydney Morning Herald's Michael Koziol.
"It's the whole 'Fortress Australia' concept. People just don't understand why they're shut-out, why they can't reconnect with family and friends, why they can't come here to study. As the rest of the world opens up I think there is even less understanding of that right now."
Visa holders who are not fully vaccinated will still require a travel exemption to enter Australia, and will be subject on their arrival to the relevant state and territory quarantine requirements. For those who are not vaccinated, they will have to provide proof that there is a medical reason that they cannot be vaccinated.
The government says each jurisdiction and state will be allowed to place their own caps on arrival numbers but it's the first time in almost two years the country will see foreign tourists.
Tourism 'rejoicing' but cracks appear
Travel stocks surged after the new border rules were announced with Flight Centre jumping 7.8 per cent to $18.94 ($20.30) on the Australian sharemarket.
Flight Centre CEO Graham Turner told Sky News the tourism sector has been waiting a "long time" for the announcement. "It's better late than never," he said.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce declared Australia is finally "open for business".
The Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF) said tourism operators were "rejoicing" nationally over the announcement, hailing the "open sesame" moment.
"This announcement couldn't have come a minute too soon especially since the Omicron outbreak put the brakes on what was looking like a promising summer for travellers and tourism operators alike domestically," Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF) CEO Margy Osmond said in a statement.
"Once we reopened our doors to returning Australians, families of overseas expats and later students and working holiday-makers we've been anxiously awaiting the return of leisure and corporate travellers so that we can truly embark on the road to recovery.
"Our industry has faced so many challenges over the last two years, but it is renowned for being resilient and I have every faith it will bounce back better and bigger than before.
But she warned the announcement comes with caveats and the industry faces an uphill battle.
Australia's visitor economy contributed over AU$60 ($64) billion to Australia's GDP pre-Covid, and provided jobs for more than 1-in-20 Australian workers. Experts say the "need is urgent" to get the industry back on track.
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents said a survey of its members shows revenue for Jan 22 is down 96 per cent from Jan 30, compounding the 80 per cent decline experienced in FY21. On average 51 per cent of all travel businesses' work is assisting clients to use travel credits for Covid-affected travel.
"There is still much to be done in attracting airlines back who unsurprisingly withdrew services during the pandemic enforced border closure, to entice tourists back from key international markets in what will be an increasingly competitive marketplace and importantly to address the skills shortages crippling the industry," Ms Osmond said.
"Also to be resolved are the issues around cruise ships being allowed back into Australian waters and when that can occur.
"I have no doubt it will be a long road ahead to achieve a full-scale recovery and this is just the first step, but we look forward to working closely with the Federal Government towards a well-executed and smooth recommencement of international inbound travel."
'Light at the end of the tunnel'
Meanwhile the Business Council of Australia said the reopening to the world "signals the next critical step in our management of Covid-19".
"This move brings to an end Fortress Australia. This is the light at the end of the tunnel that small business, tourism operators and the events industry was desperate to see," Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott said.
"Businesses in all states and territories have been devastated by the loss of tourism, including in regional areas. Some have had to shut their doors forever.
Tourism Sector can't be a political football
While peak industry body the Accommodation Association, welcomed the news, it highlighted the "critical need for a consistent approach on the resumption of international travel", and warned "tourism cannot be a political football".
The Association has urged the government to implement a reopening strategy which provides the certainty "to allow us to plan and the confidence for people to travel again without being hit with sudden changes to entry requirements.
"What this sector needs is a plan which everyone agrees with and supports," Richard Munro, CEO Accommodation Association, said in a statement.
"Tourism and the many many businesses including our hotels, motels and accommodation providers and the people we employ need to have a commitment from Government at all levels on this.
"Tourism cannot be a political football and we can't afford to invest in ramping up for a return of international travellers only to have borders shut, quarantine requirements change or be reintroduced or vaccination frameworks to be amended. Put bluntly, the political point scoring has to end."
"Consumer, corporate and sector confidence has taken a continual beating through all of this and we can't afford anything that further impacts that.
"The widespread labour losses of up to 35 per cent alongside the sector-deep loss of skills has hit almost every hotel and motel in the country.
"For those hotels heavily hit by the international travel ban which are predominantly reliant on international travellers and in Sydney and Melbourne's CBD, it's even more important that these arrangements stick and that, if they invest in restocking and bringing people back, they can rely on the commitments that travellers will be able to return to Australia."
Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews on Monday acknowledged the tourism industry "has been dealt with a tremendous blow" through Covid.
"Our visitor numbers have clearly been down. Our tourist providers have had to rely on domestic travellers.