CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — International tourists won’t be welcomed back to Australia until next year, with the return of skilled migrants and students given higher priority, the prime minister said on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was expected to reach the vaccination benchmark on Tuesday at which the country could begin to open up: 80% of the population aged 16 and older having a second shot.
Last week, he outlined plans to allow vaccinated citizens and permanent residents to fly overseas from November for the first time since an extraordinarily tough travel ban took effect in March last year.
But Morrison on Tuesday said that after Australians, the next priority would be skilled migrants and international students entering Australia before tourists.
Australian immigration has been at its lowest since World War II because of pandemic restrictions. The pandemic has also had a disastrous effect on Australian universities that rely heavily on fees paid by international students. The education sector fears that students will enroll in other countries unless Australia opens its border to them soon.
“The next priorities are skilled migrants that are very important for the country and who are double vaccinated, as well as students who are coming and returning to Australia for their studies,” Morrison told Seven Network television.
“We will get to international visitors as well, I believe next year,” Morrison added.
The Australian Tourism Export Council, which represents a sector that made 45 billion Australian dollars ($33 billion) a year from international tourists before the pandemic, wants international visitors to return by March.
Australia is racing to inoculate its population as an outbreak of the more contagious delta variant that began in Sydney in June continues to spread.
Victoria state on Tuesday reported a national record 1,763 new local infections. 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 its outbreak peaked on Sept. 10.
Hospitalizations peaked in Australia’s most populous state in mid-September.
New South Wales leads the other states in vaccination rates and Sydney’s airport is expected to be the first to reopen to vaccinated travelers.