As Aotearoa New Zealand prepares to step forward into a post-Covid world, one question remains unanswered: "what's the plan?".
To quote Albert Einstein, "you can't use an old map to explore a new world". But 18 months into the pandemic, that's what we are trying to do. The tourism sector, like many others, is crossing its fingers and hoping the path we tread is the right one to lead us safely through and beyond the current Delta outbreak.
But 36 days (at the time of writing) since the current lockdown began, there is still no road map to show New Zealand businesses, across every industry, how to find their way back as the threat of Covid recedes.
A board member of the Tourism Export Council compared the current situation for many Kiwi tourism businesses to being perched at the top of a mountain with, at best, 50:50 odds of either ruin or survival. Throughout the Auckland region I've watched well-established businesses, with 20-year track records, pivot in every conceivable direction before surrendering.
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has stated that the Government cannot shore up tourism operations that are not financially viable. But it would be wrong to assume that businesses, today grimly hanging on by their fingertips, are failures. These businesses are the successes stories. They have pivoted, they've reimagined their future and have used every means available to them to still be here - 18 months after being cut off from their traditional customers.
Military doctrine states that it's foolhardy to reinforce failure, but it's imperative to reinforce success; it's an axiom that might equally be applied here.
The success of New Zealand's Covid response has, so far, hinged largely on the public's acceptance of "doing what has to be done" for the sake of our collective health.
Meanwhile, the health of the tourism sector (and also that of the hospitality, events and international education sectors) is firmly tied to the Government's elimination strategy and their vaccination targets.
But the absence of a roadmap to a post-Covid existence means many questions remain unanswered.
What happens if we achieve no better than 80 per cent percent of the eligible population vaccinated? This would leave 850,000 eligible Kiwis unvaccinated: how would this affect our vague plan for reopening borders?
We know from overseas that Delta would rip through an unvaccinated population and cause a staggering number of hospitalisations. Yet, despite the luxury of 18 months to make significant improvements to our available ICU spaces, we're hardly better equipped to cope with mass hospitalisations than we were in February 2020.
In the event that 20 per cent of the population remain unvaccinated, and without capacity to cope with a rampant Delta outbreak, presumably the Government's only option would be to keep the borders closed.
The longer borders remain closed, the greater the risk that the door to international markets clangs shut and remains so. The danger of being set aside as a destination by the rest of the world increases as our "Fortress New Zealand" reputation grows ever stronger.
Anecdotal evidence already suggests that our traditional offshore partners are moving their business elsewhere. Being kept in limbo over the future status of our border has led to New Zealand being placed in the "too hard" basket: a stance that is already impacting the 2022/23 season, which many Kiwi tourism operators view as their last great hope.
For now, we are expected to pin our hopes on domestic tourism, but the Delta outbreak has severely limited that solution. For many Auckland businesses, the summer season accounts for a significant proportion of the year's income. But this year's Christmas parties, team-building events and family holidays are jeopardised by the uncertainty created by Delta. This vital injection of cash, for which so many businesses are desperately holding out, is seriously endangered.
The future health of New Zealand's tourism sector needs a treatment plan, entailing: advocacy in offshore markets to convince potential visitors that New Zealand is ready to
welcome them; financial support to ensure that high-quality visitor experiences remain open and available when visitors do come; and a clear plan outlining how and when vaccinated international travellers will be granted access.
The apparent "overnight success" of the tourism industry, which the current Government inherited, actually took 20 years to build. Pre-Covid, annual international tourism expenditure was $17.5 billion – around $48 million per day.
How can any part of the New Zealand economy get serious about recovery with so much cash missing from the national till?
It's inconceivable that the Government doesn't have a reopening plan. After doing the hard yards for so many months, surely businesses deserve to be taken into the Government's confidence.
• Gavin Oliver is co-founder of EcoZip Adventures, chair of the Auckland Tourism Regional Forum and deputy chair of Waiheke Island Tourism Incorporated.