By Colin Packham and Renju Jose
CANBERRA/SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia will allow foreign visa holders to enter the country from the start of December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, the latest step to restart international travel and support its economy.
Australia shut its international border in May 2020 and allowed only restricted numbers of citizens and permanent residents to enter in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
The rules were relaxed in recent weeks to allow foreign family members of citizens to enter, and Morrison said this will be scaled up from Dec. 1 to allow vaccinated students, business visa holders and refugees to arrive.
"The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back," Morrison told reporters in Canberra. Australia will also allow in vaccinated tourists from South Korea and Japan from Dec 1, he said.
The return of foreign students, who are worth about A$35 billion ($25 billion) a year to the Australian economy, will be a major boost for the education sector.
More than 235,000 foreigners, including about 160,000 students, held visas for Australia at the end of October, government data showed.
Many Australian universities have come to rely on foreign students, who make up about 21% of total enrolments, and the border closure led higher education facilities to lay off hundreds of staff.
Many students locked out of Australia have said they would switch to alternative universities if they were unable to begin face-to-face learning in 2022.
The relaxation of the border rules is also expected to ease labour shortages, which threaten to stymie an economic rebound.
"This will be critical relief for businesses who are struggling to find workers just to keep their doors open and for those who need highly specialised skills to unlock big projects," said Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the industry body, the Business Council.
Border rules, swift lockdowns and tough social distancing rules helped Australia to keep its coronavirus numbers far lower than many other comparable countries, with around 200,000 cases and 1,948 deaths.
Most new infections are being reported in Victoria state, which logged 1,029 cases on Monday. New South Wales, home to Sydney, reported 180 cases. Other states and territories are COVID-free or have very few cases.
($1 = 1.3824 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Colin Packham; Editing by Richard Pullin)