Friday marks one year since New Zealand closed its border. This was an essential move that has kept us all safe. But it must never be forgotten that it has come at devastating personal and economic cost. Parents are separated from their children, weddings have been cancelled, people have had to watch loved ones' funerals on Zoom, and our tourism industry is on its knees.
The price of keeping us all safe is being paid disproportionately by the men and women who run our adventure activities, motels, and tour companies. That sacrifice extends to our petrol stations, cafes, and all those who used to make a living from looking after international visitors.
New Zealanders were quick to rally and support these businesses. We had a great summer exploring our country, but most of us are now back into the daily grind of work or study, which means our tourism operators are struggling once again.
While overall unemployment has remained low, in Queenstown the number of people on the Job Seeker benefit has gone up by more than 300 per cent. You can hear a pin drop on the streets of Fox Glacier and Te Anau. Small, family-owned businesses are grimly hanging on, but they are facing a very uncertain future. They are laying off staff and putting their family homes on the line to borrow from the bank just to try to get through.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. The success of vaccines means by 2022, it is predicted global travel will pick up again. Kiwis will be able to reunite with family and friends, and we can welcome back international visitors.
The question is how do we help people in tourism and travel hold on until we reach the end of the tunnel? The next six months are crucial. Businesses will not survive if we don't act.
We already accept as a nation that there is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to Covid. The Government takes Auckland out of lockdown not when there is no risk, but when the risk is low enough that there is no longer a justification for having a border around our biggest city and separating Aucklanders from their friends and family in other places.
Australia also now sits in that same low-risk category and we must open the travel bubble.
Australia and New Zealand are managing Covid in much the same way. Both nations are largely Covid-free and stamp out outbreaks quickly. Experts such as Dr Michael Baker say the transtasman travel bubble can be safely opened. The plans to manage a safe travel corridor are ready to put into action at a few days' notice. Once open, there could be temporary travel interruptions to manage any new community cases. But that is better than having our doors closed to Australians indefinitely.
The risk is low enough that keeping families separated can no longer be justified. Keeping our tourism industry locked out of its biggest market is no longer justified.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa represents local tourism businesses and the Travel Agents' Association represents the agents that help Kiwis travel overseas. It would be easy to think we are competitors. But what Covid has taught us is how much we need each other. And together we need a two-way bubble.
The economics of international travel are complex but, in the end, it comes down to one key factor: airlines need planes to be as full as possible both ways to make the system work. It costs a lot of money to fly a plane to and from New Zealand and every empty seat means the seat next to it costs more. And as we see at the moment, it costs more for our exporters too.
We need people going to Australia to visit family or do a business deal in order to have those planes coming back with Sydney-siders keen to try Sav Blanc in Marlborough and Victorians heading for the ski fields. We need to fill the planes in both directions.
Airlines are only going to put on more flights to New Zealand if they can ensure they have passengers leaving on flights as well as coming in.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said recently if Australians can't spend money in Queenstown, they should spend it in Cairns. We want Australians welcomed to Queenstown and New Zealanders to escape our winter for some time in Cairns. It would be a boost for both economies.
We can see some light at the end of the Covid tunnel, but for the tourism and travel industries this is still the darkest part of a frightening journey. Transtasman travel could be the difference between collapse and survival.
- Chris Roberts is chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa and Brent Thomas is chief operating officer of Travel Agents' Association of New Zealand.