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A year of suspense, twists and a sudden dive from a height

February 18, 2021 Headline News No Comments

Australian travel figures for the whole of 2020 have just been released, painting a stark portrait of a warped year in which a promising start gave way to disaster – with newer arrival figures posing a few extra questions.

Inbound, Australian tourism in 2020 recorded its lowest figures in a generation – since 1987. Outbound, it was the worst year since 1996.

The first quarter of 2020 looked great. Visitor arrivals in January 2020 were 4.8% above the previous January. But as the reality of Covid-19 sank in, the picture went pear shaped. February 2020 was 26.1% below the previous February in inbound arrivals; March was 60.3% below the previous March; April was 99.7% below the previous April. It didn’t get any better.

In a bizarre distortion, 97% of visitor arrivals in 2020 occurred in the first three months – before Covid-19 struck and the Australian Government slammed travel restrictions into place on 20 March 2020. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures give the picture.

Visitors arriving in Australia in 2020.

  • There were 1.8 million visitor arrivals, down 80.7% on the previous year and the lowest since 1987
  • New Zealand was the largest source country, accounting for 242,500 visitors nationally
  • There were more visits by women than men. Ten years earlier, the opposite was true
  • The main reason for travel was ‘holiday’ (43.2%)
  • Nationally, the median duration of stay in Australia was 14 days.

OUTBOUND, THE PICTURE WAS SIMILAR, with 92% of resident returns in 2020 occurring before travel restrictions took force on 20 March 2020.



Australian residents returning to Australia in 2020.

  • There were 2.8 million resident returns from overseas, down 75% on the previous year and the lowest since 1996
  • New Zealand continued to be the leading destination country for Australians travelling overseas, accounting for 438,700 visitors nationally
  • The main reason for travel was ‘holiday’ (53.3%)
  • Nationally, the median duration away was 17 days.

For the record, the World Health Organisation (WHO) began daily situation reports of the Covid-19 outbreak on 21 January 2020 and identified it as an international health emergency on 30 January. This was less than a month after suspected cases were reported in Wuhan, China.

Initially the Australian Government placed travel restrictions on those travelling to Australia from mainland China commencing 1 February 2020. Restrictions on other countries soon followed. From 20 March 2020, all overseas travel was banned, with few exceptions. As every travel agent knows, the pandemic continues to disrupt international travel.


Below: Anatomy of a crash. Short-term resident returns to Australia, a measure of outbound travel, in the 10 years to December 2020. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

Interesting very recent figures, meanwhile, relate to longer-term arrivals.

Australian Border Force data, reported by the Australian newspaper, shows that more than 253,000 citizens, residents and visa holders have travelled to Australia since the hotel quarantine system was introduced in late March 2020. Some 73,000 citizens of other countries have arrived as well. Quite who they are is not disclosed – but most of them would have had to do 14 days quarantine.

The combined total of arrivals in the year up to this week is already over 326,000. More and more Australians abroad are deciding to return home and many non-Australians are coming too – the flow seems unending.

For comparison, Australia’s net migrant intake for the 2018-2019 year was 239,600.


 Written by Peter Needham

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