Kiwi party town Queenstown hails 'godsend' Aussie travel bubble

Australians accounted for about 60 percent of the town's overseas visitors. PHOTO: AFP

QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND (AFP) - For the past year, the so-called "adrenaline capital of the world" has been more ghost town than party central.

But unlike in most coronavirus-hit tourism hot spots, locals in New Zealand's scenic Queenstown are optimistic that their adventure hub is about to get its pre-pandemic mojo back.

The travel bubble that opened with Australia on Monday (April 19) has once again brought planes full of visitors, restoring the lifeblood of a town that Covid-19 sent reeling.

Destination Queenstown chief executive Ann Lockhart called it "light at the end of the tunnel".

"A strong winter season will be a godsend basically for our industry as a whole," she said.

For local tourism operator Steve Bruce, the bubble is "almost salvation".

"It will make a huge impact on a lot of livelihoods, but also on a lot of businesses being able to have a sustainable future in this town," he said.

When the international borders shut last year, the hordes of bungee-jumping, jetboating, skydiving adventure tourists dried up, forcing many local businesses to close. The economy flatlined. Unemployment skyrocketed.

The new travel bubble means that passengers from Australia and New Zealand - both of which have largely contained Covid-19 - can fly across the Tasman Sea without undergoing mandatory quarantine on arrival.

Ms Lockhart expects the arrangement to have a major impact since Australians accounted for about 60 per cent of the town's overseas visitors before the pandemic.

Already, ski bookings from Australia have spiked, said NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson.

"It's the best news in a year... We're just looking forward to the vibe coming back into town," he said.

'Sheer joy'

After the bubble opened, Dr Arvind Iyer jumped on the first flight to Queenstown, which is nestled among spectacular mountains, with ski fields and glacier-fed lakes.

Being able to travel internationally again was "sheer joy", said Dr Iyer, a doctor at a major Sydney hospital.

"After 14 months of torture and working hard, (seeing) so many patients, it feels different," he said.

Fellow Aussie Abhi Madras was impressed with the warm Kiwi welcome, particularly that the local mayor came to personally greet his flight.

Exploring the shores of Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu, he too revelled in visiting a new place.

"It was almost like our wings were clipped for 14 months and all of a sudden we got wings again," he said.

The bubble is not without challenges, including the possibility it could be suspended if there is a virus outbreak in Australia or New Zealand.

"We're a little bit worried, but probably very ready," said NZSki's Mr Anderson, adding that plans were in place to enforce health protocols on the ski fields if an outbreak occurred.

Some employers have also complained of staff shortages because the international travellers who worked as chefs and bartenders before the pandemic have returned home.

The government has responded by lifting a suspension on working holiday visas for Australia-based applicants from a range of countries.

Tourism New Zealand's general manager in Australia, Mr Andrew Waddel, said the travel bubble's significance went beyond economic impact.

As a remote country, New Zealand had felt a heightened sense of isolation during the pandemic, he said, which gave added symbolism to reopening the border after almost 400 days.

"When you're a country that's very welcoming and you're on the other side of the world, you connect with others when they travel," he said.

"So it's had a significant impact on the well-being of the country... that sense of connection with other countries."

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