New Zealand will allow quarantine-free visits by Australians from April 19, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday, creating a "travel bubble" for the neighbouring nations which have closed borders to the rest of the world to eradicate COVID-19.
Though most Australian states have allowed quarantine-free visits from New Zealanders for months, New Zealand has continued mandatory quarantine from its neighbour, citing concern about small COVID-19 outbreaks there.
The virus has effectively been eradicated in both countries, with minor outbreaks a result of leakage from quarantined returned travelers. Australia has recorded about 29,400 virus cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had just over 2,100 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.
"The Trans-Tasman travel bubble represents a start of a new chapter in our COVID response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard at," Ardern told reporters in the New Zealand capital Wellington.
"That makes New Zealand and Australia relatively unique. I know family, friends and significant parts of our economy will welcome it, as I know I certainly do."
Other neighbouring countries have proposed special travel zones, but the New Zealand-Australia arrangement is among the first that does not involve mandatory COVID-19 testing.
About 568,000 New Zealand-born people live in Australia, according to 2018 figures, equivalent to 2.3 per cent of Australia's population and Australia's fourth-largest migrant community.
Australia supplied 1.5 million or 40 per cent of arrivals in New Zealand in 2019, the year before the pandemic shut borders, contributing $2.3 billion (Cdn) to its economy, according to New Zealand figures. Arrivals were forecast to reach 80 per cent of that level by early 2022, Ardern said.
"Tourism operators can now take bookings with confidence and scale up their staffing," said Chris Roberts, CEO of New Zealand travel industry body Tourism Industry Aotearoa.
Flights to and from some Australian states could still be suspended if there were local outbreaks, Ardern warned. She added that travellers must wear masks on flights and undertake New Zealand contact tracing, while the travel bubble did not apply to people transiting via Australia from other countries.
The bubble would operate under a "flyer beware" system, with no new support from the New Zealand government for people stuck in Australia by cancellations at short notice, Ardern said.
Travel would operate state-by-state, and would follow a virus risk traffic-light system, with travel as normal in green light zones, halting for 72 hours in orange zones and halting for an extended period in red-light zones.
Air New Zealand Ltd and Qantas Airways Ltd said they would ramp up flights between Australia and New Zealand to more than 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, reducing the airlines' cash burn when they are almost wholly reliant on domestic markets for revenue.
"I'll certainly be digging out my passport for the first time since I joined the airline to head across the ditch to see my family, and I'm especially looking forward to meeting some of my grandchildren for the first time," said Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran.
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