New Zealand agreed yesterday to open a travel bubble with Australia that will allow quarantine-free entry from April 19 in a move to kick-start tourism in the travel-dependent countries.
The announcement marks a significant turning point for the two neighbours, which have been among the world's most successful nations in combating Covid-19 but have also imposed some of the harshest restrictions, including heavy travel curbs.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand will allow Australians to enter without quarantining from 11.59pm on April 18, but may close the border again if there are further outbreaks in Australia. Currently, all travellers entering New Zealand must quarantine for 14 days.
"The trans-Tasman bubble represents the start of a new chapter in our Covid response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard for, and this makes New Zealand and Australia relatively unique," Ms Ardern told reporters.
The announcement prompted an immediate rush for tickets as airlines released plans to resume flights. Australian carrier Qantas and its budget subsidiary Jetstar plan to restart flights to all pre-Covid-19 destinations in New Zealand from April 19.
Qantas is launching two new routes linking Auckland to Cairns and the Gold Coast. The airline says it will operate at about 83 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity, noting that demand remains lower than normal due to the lack of travellers coming from abroad who would then visit New Zealand.
Air New Zealand has added flights to destinations across Australia and is launching a new route between Auckland and Hobart. It is flying at almost 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity.
Virgin Australia will operate limited services to Queenstown in New Zealand from Sept 18 but will otherwise not resume flights to the country until Oct 31.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the travel corridor "means more planes in the air, more jobs on the ground and in the air as well for our airlines". He added that there were no plans yet to introduce similar bubbles with Singapore or other destinations.
"This is the first of many more steps to come, I believe, as we get back to a normal, not only over the course of this year but beyond," he told reporters.
"We are in no position to be outlining where the next (travel bubbles) will be… We have looked at places like Singapore and Japan and South Korea and countries like these, but at this stage we are not in a position to move forward on any of those," Mr Morrison said.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, about 1.5 million travellers flew from Australia to New Zealand each year. New Zealand expects arrivals from Australia to be at 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.
The scheduling of additional flights between the countries led to immediate falls in ticket prices. Face masks on board aircraft will still be mandatory.
Australia has had a one-way travel bubble since October that allows people to enter from New Zealand without quarantining, though entry has been restricted several times following Covid-19 outbreaks in New Zealand. The state of Western Australia is not accepting travellers from New Zealand.
The creation of the bubble marks an important milestone for both countries, as they begin to contemplate a resumption of post-pandemic international travel.
The bubble is expected to deliver NZ$1 billion (S$943 million) to the New Zealand economy but Tourism New Zealand said the number of cross-Tasman travellers will be below pre-pandemic levels.
"We aren't expecting Australian visitor numbers to return to previous levels for some time and expect the first to travel will be those reconnecting with family and friends," Tourism New Zealand's interim chief executive Rene de Monchy told The Sydney Morning Herald.