By Angus Watson and Ben Westcott, CNN
Australia’s international borders reopened on Monday, ending nearly 20 months of tough restrictions and sparking emotional scenes at Sydney and Melbourne airports as people reunited with their loved ones.
At Sydney airport, passengers on flights from Singapore and Los Angeles were met with hugs and tears.
Partners tearfully reunited, some holding flowers, others brandishing signs. One woman sobbed as she embraced her daughter in the arrivals hall in Sydney after returning from Los Angeles. “I love you so much,” she said.
Australia was one of the first countries to shut its borders to international travel in March 2020. Shortly after the start of the pandemic, the government said only citizens and permanent residents would be allowed to enter, and they would have to undergo two weeks of hotel quarantine. A quota system also severely limited the number of people who could arrive each day.
But as Australia’s vaccination rollout accelerated in September and October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said citizens and permanent residents who had received both their shots would be allowed to travel internationally and return home from Monday — with arrival quotas also lifted.
So far, only the highly-vaccinated states of New South Wales and Victoria — home to Australia’s largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne — have relaxed restrictions on international arrivals. More than 80% of the adult population in both states is now fully vaccinated.
Amid the celebratory reunions Monday, some travelers bore the emotional scars of the travel restrictions. Nick Costello, who arrived from Los Angeles, said he had returned to Australia to attend his father’s funeral — but he didn’t get the chance to see him in person before he died.
“I’ve been trying to get back for the last couple of months to see my dad,” he said. “I feel like there has been a huge human cost that has been paid for a lot of Australian citizens that live in other places or that travel overseas.”
The border policy has grown more controversial over the past year, with tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas for months at a time, unable to return due to a lack of quarantine spaces or international flights.
The Australian government has said further border limits will be removed as other parts of the country meet their 80% vaccination targets.
For now though, some international arrivals still face difficulties in getting home. Pilot Michael Jung, who had just arrived in Sydney from Singapore, said the final trip across the border to his home in the neighboring state of Queensland was still impossible due to local restrictions.
He said he’ll be staying with his in-laws in Lismore, New South Wales until the border reopens and he can return to Brisbane.
“I know Australia’s trying to do its best to keep Covid under control. I think they’ve done pretty good so far,” he said. “I just want everybody to get vaccinated, so we hit those numbers and then we get in.”
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Top image: People greet each another in the arrivals hall after landing at Sydney Airport on November 1 in Sydney, Australia. Credit: James D. Morgan/Getty Images for Sydney Airport