New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to name a date shortly for the launch of a two-way travel bubble with Australia.
The opening up of the travel bubble will complete the other side of a one-way bubble which was agreed to by both countries in October.
Since October 16, New Zealanders have been able to travel to New South Wales and the Northern Territory without needing to quarantine in Australia. However, New Zealanders have still had to self-quarantine for two weeks when they arrive home, meaning most people travelling to Australia at the moment are not tourists.
With only about 5% of flights operating compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, airlines have reported that they will significantly boost flights to New Zealand once a quarantine-free travel zone is established.
In mid-December, Ms Ardern said her cabinet had agreed in principle to establish quarantine-free travel between the two countries, although she did not give an exact date for the earliest it might be in place. A start date for the new travel arrangements would be announced “in the new year once remaining details are locked down” between both countries, she said, on the proviso that they remain effectively COVID-free.
New cases of Covid-19 in Sydney may put a temporary damper on a generalised travel bubble, however state authorities have, in recent months, been highly reactive in dealing with outbreaks.
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 like to open up the travel bubble as soon as possible. He added: “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. 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.”
Mr Hunt continued: “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 and 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% of the visitors to New Zealand and Kiwis accounting for 15% of arrivals into Australia.
Australian Tourism Industry Council managing director Simon Westaway said it was likely more Australians would visit New Zealand than vice-versa, but it was still positive for the tourism industry, because it would prove a good test case to open up to countries in Southeast Asia in 2021. He said Singapore, Japan and provinces in China should be a priority: “Singapore has already offered Australia a green lane, and that should really be a focus for us in the new year.”
The travel bubble will also be contingent on arrangements being made with airlines about the management of air crew and separation of trans-Tasman flights from other services.
A spokesman for Qantas, which currently operates 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.
In a statement, the airline said: “We’re looking forward to adding significant amounts of capacity across the Tasman once details about the bubble and when it will begin are confirmed.”
Virgin Australia already has 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.
An airline spokesperson that the company will continue to review and adjust its schedule in line with demand and the start dates for quarantine-free travel.