Australia, we are travelling again. Not a lot, exactly, but at least at levels experienced in our lifetimes.

New data released by the Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of Australians who left our shores in December 2021 was similar to levels last seen in the early 1990s. You can see that in this next chart.

Source: supplied.

Aussie passport holders had been travelling at a rate of up to a million a month in 2019, a dramatic increase over the past three decades. That fell to roughly zero in the past two years, but has bounced back to about 150,000 people a month in December 2021, a big lift from November.

One of the surprising effects of the scarcity of travel is to make other people’s holidays interesting again. “Yes!” you may find yourself saying to a returned friend, “I do want to see your photo of Piccadilly Circus!” Once common as muck, international holidays are now precious, scarce, intriguing.

But some destinations are rarer than others. As yet we have the destination data only until November 2021, but it shows a couple of patterns.

Obviously Aussies are heading only to countries that are open. All those Japan holidays are going to the United States instead. The countries we’re visiting are those where we have family: the UK, New Zealand, India. The surprise showing of “other sub-Saharan Africa” in the list of top destinations is also explained by the burning desire of families to reunite.

Source: supplied.

Now, more than 3000 trips to each of the US and UK in November may seem like quite a few planeloads, but the falls from the “before times” are extreme. As the next chart shows, departures to top destinations are down between 92% and 100% compared with two years earlier.

(The red dot shows travel in November 2021; the black dot shows travel in November 2019.)

Source: supplied.

This pattern shows travel is now far less simple, fun or frivolous. Anyone braving the strict requirements for travel would want to have a good reason. Try getting a PCR test within 48 hours of take-off, when about half of PCR tests take more than three days to come back. It’s not relaxing — you probably need a wedding or a funeral to attend to make it worthwhile.

The lift in flying from November to December is a source of optimism, but the level of travel is always higher in December. It’s not going to return to its previous levels quickly. The Omicron variant seems prone to reinfect people, and so the fade from pandemic virus to endemic virus may well be protracted.

It’s not great news for airlines. Qantas had planned to get five of its A380 aircraft out of storage in the Californian desert, blow the dust off and get them flying again.

“Our planes and our people are getting back to work much earlier than we expected,” said Qantas CEO Alan Joyce back in October. “This is the best news we’ve had in almost two years.”

In January, the tone has changed, and a lot of aircraft are still on the ground.

“Qantas and Jetstar are adjusting flying levels to better match travel demand in light of the sudden growth in COVID-19 cases,” the company announced.

It will cut domestic capacity from 102% of pre-COVID levels to 70% for the three months of January, February and March. International capacity is cut from 30% of pre-COVID levels to 20%.

“The schedule changes are focused on reducing frequency of services and size of aircraft to minimise inconvenience for passengers as much as possible … An assessment on the financial impact of these changes will be given at the group’s half-year results in late February.”

Qantas, like so many travel companies, has suffered enormously through the pandemic. It has $5.65 billion in debt and expects an underlying loss of more than $1.1 billion in the six months from July to December 2021. I feel like I need a holiday. But Qantas needs me to take one even more.

Will travel open up further in 2022? Will the passport office get flooded with requests for renewals?

We can make all the plans we like, but much depends on mutations in the genes encoding the spike of a tiny strand of ribonucleic acid we call the coronavirus. With the current rate of infections, a new variant seems almost a certainty. We can only hope the next one is less deadly, not more.