The New Zealand tourism industry, struggling to survive since Covid-19 choked inbound visitor numbers, has welcomed a hint in today's Budget that the country's border will open significantly at the beginning of next year.
Although specific details are scarce, Treasury said it anticipated a "significant opening" of the border on January 1.
The news delighted Queenstown's Mayor Jim Boult, who is in Sydney promoting the district to Australians. Queenstown was gearing up for a busy ski season and the hospitality industry would then be ready to welcome international visitors, he said.
"Providing the right precautions are in place as to where we are getting visitors from and whether they've been vaccinated, we would be very much favour it."
The main issue was the lack of staff in the hospitality industry and he hoped migrant workers would be allowed back in.
"We lost a large portion of our valued migrant workers out of the district in the past year."
Boult said he was aware the Government wanted Kiwis to fill roles in tourism and hospitality but he doubted that would happen in Queenstown.
"One of the problems is that we don't have many unemployed Kiwis in our part of the world and I'm not sure Kiwis are going to travel from elsewhere in New Zealand to get jobs like cleaning and working back-of-house, so we certainly do need those migrant workers."
Boult's concerns were echoed by Tourism Industry Aotearoa's chief executive Chris Roberts, who said tourism businesses around the country were reporting difficulties in attracting suitable candidates for job vacancies, as they geared up to meet expected demand from Australian visitors.
New Zealand workers did not always have the necessary skills or were not available in the locations where they were needed.
"There is a large pool of overseas workers in Australia that could be attracted to work in New Zealand, if the Government is prepared to accept and process work visa applications," Roberts said.
"We want to put Kiwis into jobs wherever possible, but our big concern is that if vacancies remain unfilled, we won't be able to provide visitors with the high-quality experiences we want to offer."
He described the January 1 date as a "place holder" and said nothing should be read into Treasury's forecast.
"In reality, there is never going to be a magic date when global travel resumes. It is possible that in addition to Australia and the Cook Islands, travel restrictions will be eased for some other countries by the end of the year," he said.
"However, it is also likely that restrictions will remain in place for much of the world well into 2022.
He noted the Australian Government's recent Budget announcements signalled it was not expecting significant border reopenings until mid-2022.
The health of New Zealanders remained the priority in deciding further safe travel zones.
"The industry wants our borders open when it is safe to do so."
University of Canterbury and Te Punaha Matatini Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank also issued a note of caution.
"We maybe able to open up quarantine-free travel arrangements with countries as we've seen recently that have eliminated Covid-19 . But to open up to countries that still have
Covid I think we need to complete our vaccine roll-out first," he said.
Opening the border also depended how many other countries could get Covid-19 under control.
"To put a firm on a date on it now seems to be difficult because there are a lot of unknowns and there are a lot of vaccinations we need to get through between now and then."
Every eligible New Zealander needed to be offered the vaccine, including under 16-year-olds, before "we allow Covid to come into the country".
Tourism New Zealand predictions point to a slow recovery even if the border is eased in January.
Predictions indicate income from Australian visitors will be back to 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels by September next year but income from international visitors will not reach 80 per cent until February 2024.
KPMG's executive chairman Matt Pritchard said the border opening was desperately needed across every aspect of New Zealand business but it would depend on how the country was doing healthwise.
"We have always relied on talent inflow across the border to balance Kiwis going overseas and taking their talent overseas," he said. "The war for talent is real at the moment. We are just cannibalising each other with the borders shut and a closed system."
Pritchard said New Zealand needed to take advantage of its coronavirus-free "window" and allow those who have the skills needed and are Covid-free into the country.
"We should be targeting them. We shouldn't wait for a general opening of the borders, we should make them feel special given the attractiveness to them of moving their lives and families to a place like New Zealand with a reputation we have got at the moment. We must trade off that reputation."