New Zealand travel bubble with Australia coming in early 2021, NZ PM confirms
Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders will fly across the Tasman every week from early next year after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed a two-way travel bubble will be established by the end of March.
Airlines said they will significantly boost their flights to New Zealand once the quarantine-free travel zone is established. Only about 5 per cent of flights are operating compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Ms Ardern confirmed her cabinet had agreed in principle to establish quarantine-free travel between the two countries, although would not give an exact date for the earliest it could be in place.
Speaking after the final cabinet meeting of the year, Ms Ardern said the opening of the bubble was contingent on Australia's cabinet signing off on it, and there being no further COVID-19 outbreaks.
"And it's not a hypothetical. There have been several [outbreaks]," she said.
"It is our intention to name a date ... in the new year once remaining details are locked down.
"We would need to make arrangements to have potentially thousands of New Zealanders brought back to New Zealand in numbers that we wouldn't be able to facilitate, necessarily, [in] managed isolation."
The opening up of the travel bubble will complete the other side of a one-way travel bubble which was agreed to by both countries in October.
Since October 16, New Zealanders have been able to travel to NSW and the Northern Territory without needing to quarantine in Australia. However, Kiwis have still had to self-quarantine for two weeks when they arrive back in New Zealand, meaning most people coming at the moment are not tourists.
Australian government sources said the opening up of a two-way bubble did not require cabinet approval and Australia was ready to begin the arrangement as soon as New Zealand was ready.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia would "absolutely" open up the travel bubble as soon as possible.
"We consciously opened up Australia to people coming from New Zealand because their case numbers were negligible, and we knew there would come a time when our case numbers gave them confidence," Mr Hunt said.
"Families can be back together in both directions, friends can be back together in both directions and flights can be full in both directions, which is good for our economy, good for our airlines and good for both countries
"We've already committed to the principle of a two-way bubble, we've established it as a one-way bubble… now this gives the chance for New Zealanders or Australians to visit New Zealand - whether it's for friends, family, weddings, funerals, births, holidays, business - without having to quarantine."
There were around 1.5 million passenger journeys across the Tasman in each direction in 2019, with Australians making up 40 per cent of the visitors to New Zealand and Kiwis accounting for 15 per cent of arrivals into Australia.
Tourism Industry Council managing director Simon Westaway said it was likely more Australians would visit New Zealand than the other way around, but it was still positive for the tourism industry because it would prove a good test case to open up to countries in south-east Asia in 2021.
He said Singapore, Japan and provinces in China should be a priority.
"Whilst the New Zealand-Australia travel bubble may see Australians move across the ditch and possibly not travel in their own country – the reality is we do need to establish travel bubbles," Mr Westaway said.
"Singapore has already offered Australia a green lane, and that should really be a focus for us in the new year."
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the development was "a glimmer of hope in what has been an incredibly tough year for our tourism industry".
"Australia's tourism industry wants to stand on its own two feet as soon as possible and restarting some two way quarantine-free international travel with New Zealand is a step in the right direction," Senator Birmingham said.
A spokesman for Qantas, which is currently operating just two flights per week between Sydney and Auckland, said there was "a huge amount of pent-up demand" for travel between Australia and New Zealand.
"We're looking forward to adding significant amounts of capacity across the Tasman once details about the bubble and when it will begin is confirmed," he said.
Virgin already had around 70 flights to New Zealand scheduled per week from late March in anticipation of a bubble opening, and a spokesman welcomed the advance notice to prepare for services to ramp up. "We'll continue to review and adjust our schedule in line with demand and the start dates for quarantine-free travel."
New Zealand COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said he would be visiting Auckland Airport on Tuesday to start planning how people travelling to Australia could be separated from other travellers.
New Zealand has also agreed to start a bubble with the Cook Islands, which has not had a single case of COVID-19, and this will open up before Australia.
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Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.