Australia, New Zealand could reopen borders for ‘travel bubble’

A trans-Tasman bubble could be the first step in restarting overseas travel, with Singapore possibly next on the list.New Zealand is likely to be the first international destination opened up when Australia’s travel restrictions are lifted, as the two island nations create a trans-Tasman ‘bubble’ sealed against COVID-19. 

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed discussions with New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern about reopening their borders, which would be a welcome boon for business travellers and holiday-makers.

The two counties were on “similar trajectories” in tackling COVID-19, Morrison said.

“If there is any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that’s New Zealand.”

For her part, Ardern has allowed that both countries “have the same goal in mind at the moment – get it under control in our own countries and then we can talk about together what we’re able to achieve.”

“For both of us I anticipate the border restrictions will be present for a long time, so it becomes whether or not there’s anything we can build into our border restrictions that take into account our goals to keep COVID out for both of us.”

Ardern also says the same idea has been discussed with Singapore, which has adopted similarly aggressive measures to Australia and New Zealand for fighting the spread of coronavirus such as banning international visitors, imposing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from overseas, and a nationwide lockdown barring non-essential activities. 

Creating the trans-Tasman travel bubble

Professor Kevin Markwell, Professor of Tourism at Australia’s Southern Cross University, tells Executive Traveller “once it was considered safe enough by medical authorities, it would make sense to open up Australia to international tourism in a staged way, just as other sectors of the economy are likely to transition in a staged way.”

“Both countries have put in place measures that appear to be working at reducing COVID-19 infections and could get to a stage where it was considered by medical authorities safe to begin travel.”

New Zealand currently remains in hard shutdown, at what it terms level 4, but will step down to Level 3 from Monday, April 27 for at least two weeks – allowing businesses to re-open – and then consider dropping to Level 2, at which point selective domestic travel can resume.

Level 1 would be enacted when the disease is contained in New Zealand, and place no restrictions on domestic travel.

New Zealand’s focus is to eradicate COVID-19 rather than just see it under control, and it’s likely that travel to and from Australia would recommence only once that goal is considered met.

Domestic travel will return first

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, maintains that international borders are unlikely to be reopened for several months, and would be the final stage in the easing of restrictions.

“I wouldn’t be envisaging any material changes to border measures in that three to four months,” he said. “The international situation at the moment is such that any relaxation of border measures would be very risky and we just recommended to the national cabinet only a few days ago that we continue the very restrictive bans.”

It’s expected that free movement within Australia – beginning with the lifting of state border restrictions and allowing non-essential travel – would be a necessary prelude to re-opening borders with New Zealand.

“I think that domestic tourism will be regarded as an important initial strategy in helping to bring more people back into work and moving much needed income into regional areas,” Markwell says, although “this will depend on how long state borders remain closed and it may well be we see state-based tourism kick off first before interstate travel resumes.”

The bubble as economic booster

Australia and New Zealand remain each other’s number one travel destination: 2019 saw some 2.6 million residents of each country jetting back and forth across the Tasman, according to Stats NZ.

A Qantas spokesman said opening the border to New Zealand would be “a welcome step in the recovery of the tourism industry.”

“All airlines who participate in those markets would be encouraged this discussion is happening,” Air New Zealand Chief Revenue Officer Cam Wallace told Executive Traveller.

“We have about 20% of our available seat kilometres deployed across the Tasman, so that would be a positive outcome for us because we could start generating revenue to a market.”

Wallace says there’s a “pent-up demand” for travel between Australia and New Zealand that’s ready to be unbottled.

“We see that in business and corporate traffic, where people have to travel for business purposes,  and we believe there’ll be a whole bunch of families who want to reconnect.”

“What we need to understand is, what are going to be the requirements to travel? Would there be a health check, is there going to be a different boarding process? Who’s allowed to travel between those two ports, would it just be Australian and Kiwi passport holders? There’s probably more questions that we’ve got than we have answers.”

Passport, boarding pass, blood test…

Before hopping into that quick flight across the pond, travellers may need to undergo a COVID-19 test and carry a certificate confirming they are free from the disease.

To keep the trans-Tasman bubble intact, Southern Cross University’s Professor Markwell says travel might be restricted to those with a lower risk of suffering serious illness “and perhaps requiring all travellers to download an app which could be used to track their movements within each country, in case this was necessary to trace contacts if any further outbreaks were to take place.”

“The ability to quickly put a halt on travel between the two countries will also need to be built into any strategy,” Markwell cautions. “Whether people would be willing to risk travel if their travel insurance didn’t cover them for illness associated with COVID-19 is another consideration.”

Emirates has started testing passengers for Covid-19 before flying out of Dubai, while Etihad Airways will soon begin trials of contactless scanners, developed with Australian company Elenium Automation, to identify travellers with medical conditions, including the early stages of coronavirus.

The devices would be located at check-in areas, information kiosk, bag-drop facilities and security or immigration checkpoints.