New Zealand and Australia open quarantine-free 'travel bubble'

New Zealand and Australia open quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ allowing families and loved ones to reunite after 400 days of Covid border closures amid emotional scenes

  • Australia and New Zealand have opened quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ today
  • Means families separated by 400 days of border closures can finally reunite 
  • There were emotional scenes on both sides of Tasman Sea as first planes landed 
  • Both countries effectively cut themselves off from the outside world to tackle Covid, and bubble marks first move toward restarting international travel 

There were tears, hugs and kisses at airports in Australia and New Zealand today as a quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ opened between the two countries more than a year after Covid all-but halted international flights. 

After 400 days of travel bans and mandatory isolation periods, those living in New Zealand and Australia are now allowed to fly freely between the two nations.

That means families and loved ones separated for 13 months by the pandemic can now reunite, sparking emotional scenes at arrivals lounges on both sides of the Tasman Sea.  

New Zealand and Australia have opened a quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ between the two nations, allowing families and loved ones to reunite after 400 days of Covid border closures

There were emotional scenes on both sides of the Tasman Sea today as those separated by the pandemic were finally free to reunite

Australia and New Zealand had effectively closed themselves off to the outside world as part of their Covid strategies, but with cases at rock bottom they have decided to try and reopen

Lorraine Wratt, a New Zealander stranded by the pandemic while visiting family in Australia, told AFP that travelling again was ‘wonderful’.

‘We came to Australia on December 11 to spend Christmas with our children… planning to go back in February, it’s been a bit of a nightmare,’ she said.

On a grass embankment at the foot of Wellington Airport’s runway, the words ‘WELCOME WHANAU’ (family) were spelled out in giant letters and Maori dancers Maori dancers performed a traditional greeting in the terminal.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the joyful scenes were like something from a movie.

‘Love Actually… I imagine it’s pretty close to that,’ she said, referencing the 2003 British romantic comedy.

Ardern said she shared the elation, and was preparing to welcome some of her own loved ones back home.

The bubble, which followed months of negotiations between the largely coronavirus-free neighbours, was hailed as a major milestone in restarting a global travel industry that has been crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The arrangement means that for the first time since Covid-19 closed borders worldwide, passengers can fly between Australia and New Zealand without undergoing mandatory quarantine on arrival.

‘We hope 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,’ International Air Transport Association Asia-Pacific vice president Conrad Clifford said.

Australia and New Zealand have been two world-leading countries at beating coronavirus domestically, with case and death totals just a fraction of those of other nations – while daily life has remained much more normal than it has elsewhere. 

But much of their success has been down to the fact that they effectively cut themselves off from the outside world, with borders tightly restricted even to their own citizens trying to return from overseas.

Now, with Covid cases in both nations at rock bottom and following months of negotiations, they have begun opening up again – a move that will be hugely welcome by those separated from loved ones, but which carries infection risks.

A previous attempt to open the travel bubble quickly floundered after Australia shut down flights coming from New Zealand when cases of the South African variant were discovered in the country. 

Families are reunited as travellers arrive on the first flight from Sydney to Wellington, in New Zealand as the trans-Tasman travel bubble opens

Friends and relatives wait for passengers arriving from Australia at Auckland Airport

Families wait to be reunited as travellers arrive on the first flight from Sydney in Wellington

Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists before the pandemic, accounting for about 1.5 million arrivals or 40 per cent of total visitors in 2019.

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.’ 

Australia is home to hundreds of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders and before coronavirus many regularly shuttled back and forth across the Tasman.

‘It’s like it’s one big country, so it’s very good to open the borders, it will help all the families,’ Mehat El Masri told AFP as he waited to see his Sydney-based son Shady for the first time in 16 months.

The first inbound flight from Australia to New Zealand is pictured taxiing on the runway at Wellington Airport next to a sign saying ‘welcome whanau’ – meaning ‘family’

Tail logos of Air New Zealand and Australian Quantas planes are seen side by side at Auckland Airport as international travel between the two countries restarts

Denise O’Donoghue, 63, told AFP at Sydney airport that the bubble made her feel the world was returning to some sort of normality.

‘What normal’s going to be from now on I don’t know, but I’m just really, really excited today,’ she said.

Air New Zealand executive Craig Suckling said the atmosphere at Sydney airport before departure was electric, describing it as ‘quite the emotional rollercoaster’.

The airline’s chief executive Greg Foran said: ‘(It’s) a real turning point for the airline. It’s day one of our revival.’

Australia has previously flagged the possibility of travel bubbles with Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, while New Zealand is working to allow unrestricted access to small Pacific states such as the Cook Islands and Tuvalu.

But the leaders of both countries warned further border changes in the wake of the trans-Tasman bubble would be a slow process.

‘The idea that on one day everything just opens, that’s not how this is going to happen,’ Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

‘It will happen cautiously and carefully, working very hard on the medical and health protections.’

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