Growing numbers of Kiwis are already booking trips with agents following the release of plans to re-open borders, but one firm is questioning the ongoing self-isolation requirements.
The Government has bowed to political and growing public pressure to start re-opening the country, a move which will benefit Kiwis returning from Australia in the first instance and then the rest of the world.
While self-isolation for vaccinated travellers will be required initially, the president of the Travel Agents Association of NZ, Brent Thomas, says the announcement is the best news the devastated industry had received in two years. Numbers of agents had plunged from around 5000 to 1500 across the sector.
"It's time to celebrate, but it's also a time to celebrate New Zealanders who have got to the stage of being able to safely travel with confidence from the Government. The borders are now open, they've clearly signalled that requirements are going to keep getting less and less," said Thomas, who is also commercial director at House of Travel.
Bookings had started to build yesterday in anticipation of the announcement and would continue, especially from people with money they'd saved by not travelling overseas during the past two years. Australia and the Pacific Islands would be popular initially but clients were also booking for Europe later in the year.
"We know that in two years of isolation there is a significant amount of pent-up demand, but what we also know is that the world's already been opening up and people may be surprised to find that significant parts of it have got limited capacity."
On February 27, the New Zealand border will re-open to vaccinated Kiwis from Australia and to the same group from the rest of the world on March 13. All will be required to self-isolate for between 7 and 10 days, depending on which phase of the Omicron outbreak the country is in.
Anyone from Australia should be able to travel by July, as will people eligible for visa-waiver travel. Eventually, the border will fully reopen to visitors from anywhere in the world in October.
Thomas said the announcement was good news for the business travel segment but without a full recovery of inbound tourism - badly affected by self-isolation requirements - pre-pandemic airline capacity would not rebuild.
David Coombes, managing director, Flight Centre Travel Group NZ, said the news was excellent for Kiwis abroad who will finally be able to give their families that long-desired hug, meet their grandchildren, or get critical healthcare in their home country.
"But the light at the end of the tunnel is further away for foreign-born New Zealand residents desperate to see their family overseas, Kiwis keen to take their business to the world and the travel and tourism industry."
Coombes questioned the logic of self-isolation at a time when Omicron is already in the community, hospitalisation and intensive care use rates have not increased "and as the Prime Minister herself pointed out, by the end of February, 92 per cent of over-18-year-old Kiwis will be eligible to have had their booster shot."
He questioned why New Zealand was waiting until later in the year for our border to fully open to foreign tourists.
"This is devastating for inbound tourism, formerly our highest earning industry. Surely a vaccinated, tested traveller is less of a risk than undiagnosed carriers in our community."
He said his firm was encouraged that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had said there was a high likelihood that the July date for visa-waiver travel will come forward.
"We are thrilled that we are on the way to getting back to what we do best, opening up the world for those who want to see, but are hopeful the Government reconsiders its unnecessarily drawn-out and strict travel restrictions," said Coombes.
He said agents were ready to help New Zealanders navigate this new reality of travel that will involve rapidly changing protocols and precautions at every stage of the journey.