A warm welcome, indeed.
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Sydney Airport
Credit: Courtesy of Alison Fox

A lively atmosphere filled with Vegemite, kangaroos, and Tim Tam's welcomed travelers on Monday as the first international Qantas flight arrived in Sydney, Australia — and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

Stepping off a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles — skipping over a whole day — and landing in Sydney just after 6 a.m. local time on Monday, the once-typical route for Qantas flight QF12 made history as it carried the first group of American tourists entering Australia in nearly two years.

Stepping outside of baggage claim, I was welcomed to the land down under with flowers and greeted by a giant kangaroo mascot, a stuffed koala bear, and a basket full of Australia's favorite snack foods. It was a festive welcome to cap off the long flight.

Sydney airport
Credit: Courtesy of Alison Fox

Like much of the world, Australia shut down in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the globe. For the next 23 months, the country maintained some of the strictest border restrictions in the world, closing off to nearly everyone and implementing hotel quarantines for those who did come.

Late last year, Australia started welcoming some people back, including Australian citizens who were abroad, before opening it up to travelers from select countries like South Korea and Japan.

However earlier this month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia would reopen to vaccinated travelers from other nations on Feb. 21, including from the United States. And within days, I was booked on the first Qantas flight back to Oz.

With a negative test and paperwork in hand, I checked in for the flight at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and caught a connection to the West Coast. Once en route to Australia, I immediately tried to get some sleep in hopes of beating the inevitable jet lag, stretching my legs in Qantas' premium economy cabin between trips to the galley to raid the snack basket for Kit Kat bars.

The closer we got, the more excited I became. And after a final coffee with oat milk and a few minutes of rest, I caught my first glimpse of Sydney.

Currently, Qantas offers direct flights to Australia from two U.S. cities: Los Angeles and Dallas. In addition to the LA flight, Qantas operated several other international flights on Monday, including from Vancouver, Singapore, and London.

"It's fair to say we've all been waiting a long time to welcome visitors back to Australia. The thousands of international tourists arriving this week and many more over the coming months will help kickstart the tourism industry which has done it tough for the past couple of years," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement provided to Travel + Leisure. "We can clearly see from the Australian Government's announcement that people are very keen to come back to Australia, and we continue to see strong bookings out of the U.S. and UK, as well as South Africa and Canada."

A Qantas spokeswoman also told T+L that the airline also has plans to start operating Project Sunrise flights in 2024 or 2025, a pre-pandemic experiment in which Qantas was testing ultra-long haul non-stop flights between New York and London and Sydney. The project will resume once international travel recovers.

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.