After nearly a year shut off from the world, New Zealand is cracking open its borders, with a trans-Tasman travel bubble.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that the bubble with Australia would begin on 19 April, allowing quarantine-free travel between the two nations. Travellers from New Zealand have been able to enter selected Australian states without quarantining since October, but not in the other direction.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Ardern said she was “confident not only in the state of Australia, but in our own ability to manage a travel arrangement”.
More than 600,000 New Zealanders live in Australia, and many families straddle the border. “One sacrifice that has been particularly hard for many to bear over the past year has been the separation from friends and family who live in Australia, so today’s announcement will be a great relief for many,” Ardern said. “This is the next chapter.”
Ardern said the arrangement – of two countries, both maintaining a full elimination strategy for Covid-19 opening up to international travel – was potentially unique in the world. The plan has been in the works for months now, but was paused repeatedly after outbreaks of Covid-19 on either side of the border.
New Zealand officials have warned that those choosing to make the trip should be cautious and prepared, because another outbreak in either country could mean the border would close. Ardern said earlier that: “We may have scenarios where travel will shut down one way. It may therefore leave travellers – for a period of time – stranded on either side of the Tasman.”
“Quarantine-free travel will not be what it was pre-Covid-19,” Ardern said. Travellers would not be able to travel if they had cold or flu symptoms or were awaiting a Covid-19 test result, she said. They would have to wear a mask on flights, and provide contact details for their time in New Zealand.
She also said there would be random temperature checks at the airport and laid out a series of scenarios in which the bubble might be affected by new Covid cases, saying that “neither one of us wishes to export Covid to the other country”.
If a case arose that was linked to a border worker, for example, travel would likely continue. But if cases popped up that were not immediately traced to the border, travel could pause. At this stage, a pre-departure test would not be required to travel, but Ardern said that could change in future.
The move is being celebrated by New Zealand tourism businesses, many of which have struggled to survive over the last year without international tourism. In March, Tourism New Zealand forecast that opening travel to Australians could allow tourism revenue to recover to 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels. With the travel bubble open, they expected a NZ$1 billion boost to the New Zealand economy over the rest of the calendar year.
The government has come under increasing pressure as businesses across New Zealand struggle to survive the loss of income from overseas tourists since the country’s border closed a year ago. Just over half of the 923 operators who responded to a Tourism New Zealand survey this year said without an upturn in business they would have to shut down.
Earlier on Tuesday the deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, said the government would not apologise for delays announcing the bubble: “We will never apologise for putting the health and safety of New Zealanders first … we’re really confident we can do this now,” he said. “Nothing is without risk and that’s why we need to have these processes in place.”
Ardern also noted that the change would free up around 1,000-1,300 rooms per fortnight in New Zealand’s managed isolation facilities. However, she said, some facilities were able to be used only for those coming from low-risk countries such as Australia, so could be decommissioned, and around 500 rooms would be held “as a contingency”, so she did not anticipate a large number of quarantine spaces to come online.