The Australian state of Queensland opened its borders to all vaccinated domestic travelers on Monday for the first time in nearly five months, as Australians gear up for quarantine-free holiday travel – even as clusters of the Omicron variant grow.
Queensland, the country’s third most populous state, shut its border to New South Wales in July, then later to the state of Victoria, to protect against a Delta outbreak that rocked the country’s east for several months.
Now coronavirus-free, Queensland has topped its goal of having 80% of people over 16 years old fully vaccinated – a prerequisite for relaxing rules.
“We will live with Covid – but on our terms,” state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in a tweet.
Hundreds of cars queued up at the state’s southern border with New South Wales well before the rules were set to relax at 1 a.m. local time, television footage showed.
Qantas, the country’s flag carrier, said it would fly nearly 10,000 passengers to and from Queensland on Monday in about 100 flights, with most fully booked.
The easing of border restrictions comes just days before school summer holidays begin and will be a boost for the state’s lucrative tourism sector, which has been badly hit by the internal border curbs.
And on Monday, Australia announced it would grant fully-vaccinated travelers from South Korea and Japan quarantine-free entry starting December 15. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the resumption of travel was made possible owing to the high vaccination rates of all three countries.
Other Australian states have also been relaxing border rules after reaching higher vaccination levels. Tasmania is set to reopen its borders to other states later this week, while Western Australia will announce its plans later on Monday. South Australia has been welcoming interstate arrivals since late November.
However, the Omicron variant could pose a new threat during the busy Christmas period, with cases on the rise. New South Wales authorities announced that an Omicron-infected patient had been hospitalized at a news conference on Sunday, with 64 confirmed cases statewide so far.
A nightclub outbreak in Sydney has further raised concerns, with 84 people that have tested positive for Covid so far. “A number of these cases are likely to be the Omicron variant,” said NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant on Monday.
The emergence of Omicron, its spread in South Africa and abroad, and its many mutations have led to many countries reimposing travel restrictions and speeding up booster rollouts.
CNN’s Lizzy Yee contributed to this story.