New Zealand has announced its plan to “reconnect with the world” over the coming months.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday announced the country would ease COVID-related border restrictions in five stages, starting from late February.
The plan will reunite families separated by some of the strictest border rules imposed anywhere in the world throughout the pandemic.
It is also hoped that industries like tourism and higher education will receive a must-needed boost from the changes.
So, what does it mean for NZ citizens in Australia?
And what might it mean for trans-Tasman travel going forward?
What have been the restrictions to date?
For the past two years, foreigners have been largely barred from entering NZ altogether, while citizens have had to apply for a spot in hotel quarantine or an emergency exemption.
Spots in so-called managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) are randomly assigned to only a select number of applicants, leading the opposition Nationals Party to deem it the “lottery of human misery”.
The system was last week brought into focus with journalist Charlotte Bellis speaking out against being denied entry to NZ, despite being heavily pregnant.
She was later offered a spot in MIQ via a special exemption, after her predicament made global headlines.
While Australia and New Zealand had established a travel bubble during the pandemic, it has been paused and suspended on numerous occasions due to renewed coronavirus outbreaks.
NZ had previously planned to reopen for quarantine-free international travel in mid-January, but delayed the move due to the spread of the Omicron variant overseas.
Now, with some 94 per cent of NZ’s eligible population having received two doses of the vaccine, the government will allow thousands of stranded Kiwis to return home.
What’s going to happen and when?
Fully vaccinated New Zealand citizens and visa holders from Australia will be allowed to enter starting from 11.59pm on February 27.
They will be required to self-isolate for 10 days.
From March 14 onwards, vaccinated New Zealanders and residents from the rest of the world will also be allowed to self-isolate.
Partners and dependents of NZ citizens and residents will also be allowed to enter, as will those participating in working holiday schemes and some skilled workers.
Offshore temporary visa holders elsewhere in the world and up to 5,000 international students will then be allowed in from April 13.
But it might not be until July that all Australians, including tourists, will be allowed to return to New Zealand.
“We anticipate this stage will begin no later than July. I want to place strong emphasis on this being the latest we expect this to begin,” Ms Ardern said.
All other international visitors will be allowed to enter New Zealand from October.
MIQ will remain mandatory for travelers deemed “high-risk” by the government, including those who are unvaccinated.
Unvaccinated travelers will find it difficult to get to NZ in the first place given vaccine mandates imposed by Air New Zealand, Qantas, Virgin Australia and other airlines.
NZ armed forces personnel will begin the process of withdrawing form MIQ, with Ms Ardern adding that some hotels would return “to traditional use to support the return of our tourists”.
What does this mean for Kiwis in Australia?
It has major implications for the hundreds of thousands of NZ citizens living overseas, including in Australia.
Pre-COVID, Australia and New Zealand citizens had enjoyed free movement between the two countries since the 1920s.
As of mid-2018, there were an estimated 568,0000 New Zealand-born people residing in Australia — representing the fourth-largest migrant community.
Christel Broederlow lives on the Gold Coast and runs a Facebook group for the Māori community living in Australia.
She said Thursday’s announcement had been met by New Zealanders in Australia with “elation”, but that many remained anxious the situation could change again at short notice.
Many New Zealanders were desperate to return because they have lost their jobs in Australia during the pandemic, she said, adding that many aren’t eligible for government assistance because they have not been in Australia long enough.
“It’s it leaves them stranded, a lot of them that sold everything, that sold their homes and their flights only for New Zealand government to announce their postponement.”
In 2020, Ms Broederlow and her husband had planned to move back to New Zealand to be closer to her aging father, but their plans were ruined by the border closures.
Despite Ms Broederlow’s father since being diagnosed with lung cancer, she has not been able to visit NZ.
“I believe the New Zealand government hasn’t seriously considered the health and wellbeing, or mental wellbeing of the people — New Zealand citizens — that have been left stranded in Australia and also the world.”
Melbourne-based Martin Newell’s mother was recently hospitalized for heart failure in NZ.
“That was exceptionally stressful, not just being able to jump on a plane and be with her,” he told the ABC.
What might the economic impact be?
Tourism was New Zealand’s largest export industry and a huge proportion of their tourists were Australian before the pandemic hit.
Almost one in 10 New Zealanders were directly employed in tourism.
There were 1.5 million arrivals from Australia — accounting for 40 per cent of international visitors to NZ in 2019 — who spent some $NZ2.7 billion ($2.5 billion).
And it goes both ways.
New Zealanders were the second largest market for visitor arrivals into Australia in 2019.
Daniel Gschwind, head of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, welcomed the planned relaxation of NZ’s border rules.
“It’s really important for our industry, and I would think for many families spread across the ditch here, it’s very important to get our connection going again,” he said.
“We’re practically one market. New Zealand is often treated as almost part of our domestic network.
In a statement, Tourism Industry Aotearoa welcomed the the announcements but said the government must be prepared to remove self-isolation requirements as soon as health risks eased.
Spokesperson Ann-Marie Johnson said New Zealand remained off the radar for international travelers while the requirements were in place.
“The need for self-isolation is questionable, especially if Omicron becomes endemic in the community as modeling suggests,” she said.
“With risks equalized between New Zealand and overseas, the rationale for keeping self-isolation rules in place no longer exists.”
A survey by Tourism New Zealand in mid-2021 showed that more than 80 per cent of Australians actively considering travel to the country were wanting to do so for a holiday, while 21 per cent intended to visit family.
“I would so like to go home and hug my dad and you know, see how he is face-to-face,” Ms Broederlow said, adding though that she was not rushing to book plane tickets because they are anxious about the possibility of getting stuck in NZ.
The country faces a growing Omicron outbreak — although small compared to Australia’s — with 147 new COVID cases reported on Thursday.
Spread of the virus is expected to continue as more international travelers arrive.
Ms Broederlow and her husband have decided to remain based in Australia for fear of being separated from their sons and other family here in the future.
“There’s just too much uncertainty and it’s gonna take a long time to revive the crippled tourism between the countries and economies,” she said.