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.

By David Flynn, May 5 2020
Australia, New Zealand could reopen borders for 'travel bubble'

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. 

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.

Read more: Could on-the-spot COVID-19 checks become a new preflight ritual?


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 May 2011

Total posts 362

This is brilliant news and good to see both nations working together cohesively

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Aug 2017

Total posts 84

How long does a COVID-19 test take to get the results back? If a test is/becomes possible whereby a result can be returned within, say, three hours or less, I can envisage something like the following arrangement: Arrive at the airport 4 hours before the flight, get tested, be allowed to board if the test is negative.

12 Apr 2018

Total posts 10

Some test kit developed in Korea (similar to pregnancy kits) take as little as 10 min

Another machine based testing developed by Abbott Laboratory in the USA can deliver rest results in 15 min. So the technical solution exist, it's now about to get them available in enough numbers to make it work. And so far no e of these 2 technologies are available in Australia or New Zealand.

Turkish Airlines - Miles & Smiles

08 Jun 2014

Total posts 265

For a trip in Sept to NZ, when, where and how do I organize a test? How soon before as well... if you can't just go to the GP to get a test then how do you push for one due to travelling over?

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 382

If the information was available, it would have been reported. At this point, this is basically a thought bubble for the distant future.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Aug 2017

Total posts 116

A good first step in the right direction no doubt with NZ who have done similarly well to Australia.

In terms of Singapore on the list I just can't see why some media have picked them over other developed countries that have done much better than them. Hong Kong for example have 1000 cases compared to Singapore's 11 ,000. Hong Kong have over 2 million more people than SG.

I was in HK early March and I saw first hand how the people were treating it. Everyone in masks and the place was dead. Look at the result and that is sharing a border with China also. Just fascinated to hear SG is getting so much press for a half decent job compared to other popular hubs to us that have done a much better job.

HK has had thousands more tests than SG and a higher test rate per capita than SG.

African continent, Indonesia, Thailand, USA, Europe no doubt going to be a long way off for us to travel to though!

25 Jan 2012

Total posts 29

Also surprised anyone is considering opening borders with SG! I suspect regardless of merit - HK will fall under the same suspicions in terms of numbers as China does in general

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Apr 2020

Total posts 10

On he Hong Kong issue - perhaps because HK remains (despite faint memories of last year's protests) a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of CHINA - and many media outlets in many countries are likely to shy away from explicit references to, or comparisons of, HK 'as a country' with other jurisdictions. Same logic may apply to the China (PRC) contested entity we know as Taiwan (or Taiwan - R.O.C.)

And we wouldn't want to upset the PRC now would we - not in the context of COVID-19 at least!

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 517

Huh? Thailand is doing much better than Singapore. The latter has over 10000 cases, while the former has 2800 and slowing. Singapore is the worst affected country in SE Asia by a long margin. It would stand to reason then, that travel between Australia/NZ and Thailand would resume first, before Singapore.

All I can see here is a proposal made based on political reasons, not scientific ones.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Aug 2017

Total posts 84

Thailand? Do you mean Taiwan? If you do actually mean Thailand, think again. Thailand has conducted a paltry 2000 tests per million population. Compare that with Singapore (16000 tests/million population), Australia (18000 tests/million) or NZ (22000 tests/million). I'd be very interested to hear why you think that 2800 figure is anywhere near accurate or reliable.

(Taiwan, of course, hasn't tested all that much either -- but their testing started early, and has been effectively targeted at incoming travellers. And they've managed their borders brilliantly. So it's much more likely that the Taiwan figures are accurate).

01 Mar 2019

Total posts 7

Great idea but not at least for 6 months

28 Mar 2018

Total posts 34

By the time this happens, the cases in both AU and NZ would be so low (or non existent), that traveling to NZ or AU would be no more or no less risky than AU inter state travel.

So, I don't understand the necessity for any special medical certificate nor any really intrusive covid-19 test.

25 Jan 2012

Total posts 29

At this point - the issue is the unknown community spread levels. It's one thing to say we don't have any or very low amounts of detectable cases (determined by testing) - but we really have no idea how much it's spread among people who either have no symptoms at all, or very mild flu like symptoms.

Once they start doing the serology testing they'll have a much better understanding of the infection rates. This i think will determine what if anything is required to travel.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 517

Totally agree with you poopbunny. I anticipate it will likely be an interim measure, to be implemented for say the first couple of months after travel restrictions are eased, so the government can be seen as "doing something" but should be dropped after that. Personally, unless essential, I will restrict myself from any travel during that transition period in order to avoid having to deal with any inconvenient and intrusive measures such as that.

It is likely that we'll be back to normal, in terms of ease of travel, around 3-6 months after the travel ban is rescinded.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Oct 2012

Total posts 44

NZ Government obviously not receiving up to date stats on Singapore... I agree with earlier comments that it shouldn't be held up as a ideal model given the number of new cases are going up rapidly...


02 May 2016

Total posts 62

Singapore numbers have to be understood, their recent spike in numbers is related to migrant workers in hostel accommodation, mostly Bangladeshi construction workers who could probably not afford an air ticket to Malaysia let alone Australia. Singapore, like Australia has very low general community transmission. If you've visited or lived in Singapore you would understand the accommodation these migrant workers live in.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

17 Nov 2014

Total posts 102

If Singapore is in discussions for this, then how about Hong Kong and Taiwan?

They have maintained coronavirus cases low, whilst Singapore had an outbreak.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 712

Just heard the beeeeeautiful sound of a Boeing Dreamliner, it was QF156 flying overhead from ALK into MEL. I swear, I could almost smell the Avgas ... well ... I'm imagining it. Perhaps its the Lagavulin?

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