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Travel bubble set to become reality


Thirteen months after closing New Zealand’s border to foreigners for the first time ever, in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will reopen to Australians on April 19 as our two countries start a two-way, quarantine-free “travel bubble”.

Discussed almost since foreign travel was halted, Australia moved first in allowing quarantine-free visits from New Zealand six months ago. This two-way bubble is the game-changer that tourism businesses and separated familes have been waiting for, and is likely to be a model for opening of the border with other countries in future as more become Covid-safe.

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in announcing the start date for the travel bubble yesterday, this is the first instance of countries that are maintaining a strategy of keeping completely Covid-free, to be opening up to international travel between each other.

The management of arrivals from elsewhere and isolation facilities will remain the key Covid risk area, with Australia’s states now part of the equation. Their record overall has been better than ours, and there is now greater opportunity for benchmarking with the best.

The size of the prize is large for our tourism industry, which had its lifeblood of international visitors cut off abruptly. Almost 40 percent of travellers here in 2019 came from Australia; 1.5 million out of 3.9m. Almost a third were New Zealanders now living in Australia, many of whom were visiting family and friends.

Visitors from Australia tend to stay for shorter periods and spend less than other travellers, but that still totalled almost $3 billion a year — about a quarter of the total international visitor spend in Aotearoa. Our ski towns and businesses are even more reliant on Australians, who make up more than 70 percent of overseas visitors who ski in New Zealand in normal times.

The speed at which Australian travellers will return is unknown, but with a firm date and protocols in place, tourism operators can now take bookings and scale up their staffing; marketing campaigns can also get under way in Australia.

The tourism industry anticipates that Australian visitors will collectively spend at least $1bn here over the rest of 2021, and potentially a lot more. It expects initial caution on both sides of the Tasman — the bubble comes with a flyer-beware warning; any Covid outbreaks could throw travel plans into disarray — and sees people reuniting with family and friends as leading the way, followed by businesspeople and holidaymakers.