Dust off your passport and dig out your Kiwi currency: flights between Australia and New Zealand could resume as early as July under plans to open a 'travel bubble' between the two countries.
NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said today that both the Australian and New Zealand governments "are working to move on this as quickly as we can" on a proposal which would permit travel while also safeguarding against a flare-up in coronavirus cases imported from either side of the Tasman.
"We are both very keen on it ... across both sides of the ditch,” Ardern said at a news conference. "It won’t be too long before we are ready."
Australian PM Scott Morrison has said he would consider establishing the safe travel zone in July as travel restrictions continue to ease.
Government and airport officials, airlines and health specialists have been shaping the joint plan, which is expected to be tabled by the end of June, although it's yet to be determined if travellers would require some form of 'immunity passport' such as a negative test for COVID-19.
A small first step
"We see ourselves probably as the first bit of international travel, but hopefully not the last if we can make this scalable and set the preconditions for making this work more broadly," said Ann Sherry, Australian co-chair of the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum, which is coordinating a group of government agencies, airports, airlines and health experts working on the plan.
The group drawing up guidelines for the Australia-New Zealand flights is considering every stage of the journey. They include precautions on board the aircraft, passenger movement through airports and contact-tracing requirements at the destination, the forum said in a statement.
Travellers will have to declare they’re healthy before they fly, and might sacrifice their fare if they’re ill, Sherry said, adding that the group is pushing to deliver the draft plan to governments as soon as possible.
“We need them to think about it so that we can push to start trialling, once everyone’s comfortable with it, with a bit of optimism, maybe for the July school holidays,” she said.
Flights from July, or September?
A timetable produced by the Tourism Restart Taskforce, which mets weekly with the Federal Government as it works towards restarting Australia's flailing tourism industry, suggests that July would see flights to New Zealand, with travel to other "safe" countries from September.
"We are saying that New Zealand travel will definitely commence on July 1 and from 10 September we will consider whether other bubbles can commence," stated John Hart, Chair of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.
The timetable remains an "aspirational" one and would require final approval from the Australian and New Zealand governments – but Hart stressed "we have done a lot of discussion with the NZ side and they are saying we are good to go."
The taskforce has also proposed a special charter flight from Canberra to Wellington on July 1 carrying government officials, media and business representatives, without the need to undergo mandatory 14-day quarantine.
"These two cities have had a very low incidence of COVID and several days and weeks with no cases, they are sister cities, capital cities and both hubs of business," Hart said.
However, Margy Osmond, co-chair of the Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group which is developing the plan for the Australian and New Zealand governments, says "we would be expecting (travel) to commence as early as September."
“We are poring over every detail and aspect of the customer journey to find a safe and practical way forward, for the review and consideration of our respective governments."
Life inside the bubble
An ANZ bubble sealed against COVID-19 would also serve as proof of concept ahead of similar corridors being opened up to the Pacific islands including New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji.
Ardern has embarked on similar discussions with Singapore, which has adopted similarly aggressive measures to Australia and New Zealand for fighting the spread of coronavirus.
Auckland International Airport CEO Adrian Littlewood said travel protocols might be different if the flight bubble expands to include places such as Singapore and Taiwan. Health tests might become part of the process, though they probably won’t be required for trans-Tasman flights, he said.
Professor Kevin Markwell, Professor of Tourism at Australia’s Southern Cross University, told 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.”
However, Markwell suggested that 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."
Additional reporting by Bloomberg News.