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Foreign tourists will not be welcome in Australia until at least next year, the prime minister said on Tuesday as he outlined plans to lift some of the toughest and longest COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by any democracy.

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Instead the country will prioritize the return of skilled migrants and students after hitting Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s benchmark for reopening its external borders: full immunization of 80% of the population aged 16 and older. It is expected to reach the same point on Tuesday.

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The news came just days after Morrison announced the plans. To allow vaccinated citizens and permanent residents to fly abroad from November For the first time since March 2020.

The severe travel ban, which has trapped most Australians at home and kept most foreigners out, has made immigration the lowest level since World War II. Australian universities, which rely heavily on fees paid by international students, have been particularly hard hit, and many students fear they will move elsewhere if they are not allowed in soon.

While many countries have imposed strict lockdowns shutting down large parts of the economy, Australia’s travel restrictions have kept life fairly normal for most of the pandemic – although it now covers the largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the capital Canberra. Also experiencing closure. .

The regulations imposed a high emotional burden in a country where half the population was born overseas or has at least one immigrant parent. Families were separated, and some grandparents have been barred from visiting grandchildren in Australia, who are now 2 years old.

After lifting the ban on Australians, Morrison said the next priority would be skilled migrants and international students – ahead of tourists. He did not specify when those groups would be allowed in.

“We will also meet international audiences, I believe next year,” Morrison said.

The Australian Tourism Export Council, which represents a sector that earned 45 billion Australian dollars ($33 billion) a year from international tourists before the pandemic, wants international visitors to return by March.

Australian tourism operators – who are suffering not only from restrictions on international tourism but also from persistent internal pandemic border restrictions – are disappointed there are no more details on how leisure travel will resume.

“International tourist arrivals should be part of the plan,” said Daniel Gschwind, chief executive of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, the state’s top advocacy group. “Even if they may not be the first priority, we would like to see how this is worked out. There are a number of businesses that are hanging around right now.”

Gschwind said his region needs to plan how the COVID-19 risk can be managed, perhaps through rapid testing and self-isolation.

There are some exceptions to Australia’s travel ban – and tourism has never been accepted as a reason to cross the border. Those who are able to enter will have to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine. This would represent a major hurdle if it persists even after tourists are permitted.

Morrison said last week that his government would work toward “complete quarantine-free travel for some countries, such as New Zealand, when it is safe to do so.” He did not elaborate on the timing.

Australia and New Zealand briefly shared a quarantine-free travel bubble when both countries were essentially free of COVID-19 transmission.

But New Zealand restarted the quarantine after Australian officials lost control of the outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant, which was brought to Sydney by a US air crew in June.

The Delta version has changed the game in several countries that were previously able to keep the virus at bay largely with very strict travel rules, including New Zealand. On Monday, the government of that country admitted for the first time that It can no longer get rid of the coronavirus completely.

Australia is grappling with outbreaks, rushing to vaccinate its population. Its vaccination rollout was initially slow, but it has accelerated.

The state of Victoria reported a national record 1,763 new local infections on Tuesday. Australia’s second most populous state also reported four COVID-19 deaths.

The previous national record of 1,599 infections in 24 hours was set by New South Wales when the outbreak peaked on 10 September. Hospitalizations in Australia’s most populous state peaked in mid-September.

New South Wales leads other states in vaccination rates and Sydney’s airport is expected to reopen to vaccinated passengers.