SYDNEY (AFP, REUTERS) - Emotions ran high Monday (April 19) as excited passengers set off on the first flights to take advantage of a quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, allowing families split by the pandemic to finally reunite.
"(I’ll) yell, scream cry, hug, kiss, (feel) happy – all of these emotions at once," Ms Denise O’Donoghue, 63, told AFP at Sydney airport as she prepared to board her flight.
The arrangement means that for the first time in almost 400 days passengers can fly across the Tasman Sea without undergoing mandatory Covid-19 quarantine when they arrive.
Both Australia and New Zealand had largely closed their borders to non-citizens and permanent residents more than a year ago, helping to keep their Covid-19 numbers relatively low compared with several other developed countries.
Australia has recorded just over 29,500 virus cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had just over 2,200 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.
The open border will help drive the economic recovery for both countries and reunite thousands with families and friends, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a joint statement.
"It’s a very big day and exciting for families and friends," said Ms Ardern, who hailed the success of both countries in containing the virus as a key factor in allowing the travel corridor.
"The bubble marks a significant step in New Zealand’s reconnection with the world and it is one that we should all take a moment to be very, very proud of," she told reporters.
With the borders open, Ms Ardern said Mr Morrison would visit New Zealand in the "not too distant future".
Ms Ardern also said Australia Foreign Minister Marise Payne would travel to New Zealand on Wednesday.
Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists before the pandemic, accounting for about 1.5 million arrivals or 40 percent of total visitors in 2019.
The bubble’s opening received saturation coverage from media in both countries, with live television reporting from airports providing regular updates on the progress of flights.
On a grass embankment at the foot of Wellington Airport’s runway, the words ‘WELCOME WHANAU’ (family) were spelled out in giant letters.
Ms Lorraine Wratt, a New Zealander stranded by the pandemic while visiting family in Australia, told AFP it was "wonderful" to be able to travel again.
"We’re very excited to be heading back home but we’re gonna miss our family (in Australia) big time," she said. "We came to Australia on Dec 11 to spend Christmas with our children... planning to go back in February, it’s been a bit of a nightmare."
Australia is home to hundreds of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders and before coronavirus many regularly shuttled back and forth across the Tasman on three-hour flights.
More than half a million New Zealand-born people live in Australia, just over 2 per cent of Australia’s population of near 26 million.
Mr Morrison and Ms Ardern warned travellers to prepare for disruptions to travel arrangements at short notice in the event of Covid-19 outbreaks, and said the risks of quarantine-free travel will be under "constant review".
Both leaders also flagged the possibility of extending quarantine-free travel to other countries in the Pacific region when "it is safe to do so".
For Ms O’Donoghue, the travel bubble’s opening made her feel the world was returning to some sort of normality.
"I’ll be going back, they’ll be coming over, we’ll just be back to normal," she said. "What normal’s going to be from now on I don’t know, but I’m just really, really excited today."
Air New Zealand executive Craig Suckling said the atmosphere at Sydney airport before departure was electric.
"It was quite the emotional rollercoaster here in Sydney," he said. "The check-in area was a hive of activity and at the boarding gate, customers were eager to get on."
The airline’s chief executive Greg Foran said it was also a "monumental" day for those involved in the hard-hit tourism industry.
"(It’s) a real turning point for the airline. It’s day one of our revival," he said.
International Air Transport Association Asia-Pacific vice-president Conrad Clifford expressed hopes that more travel bubbles will be established across the region when it is safe to do so "as part of overall efforts to restart international air travel."
But on the first day of the bubble, most of the travellers were returning New Zealanders, with tourists expected to start arriving in large numbers during the upcoming Australian school holidays.
Queenstown local Sean Mackenzie said the travel bubble was a shot in the arm for the South Island tourist hub, where businesses have struggled without overseas visitors.
"I reckon the future’s great for Queenstown now... all the Australians come over and then international, China all of that – it will be packed," he said. "In six months, I reckon it will be packed. It’ll be sweet."