Desperate tourism hotspots are calling on the Government to relax physical distancing rules on airlines as the school holidays approach.
Queenstown Lakes District mayor Jim Boult says the region is in "an economically desperate situation" and in dire need of visitors.
He "strongly urged'' the Government to reconsider airline distancing requirements, saying that left unchecked, they would have a ''seriously detrimental effect'' on visitor numbers during the impending school holidays.
Under the current alert level, Aucklanders are able - and keen - to travel, with large crowds at the city's domestic terminal less than 12 hours after the restrictions were relaxed last month.
With international flights grounded indefinitely, New Zealanders have been urged to instead spend their next holiday exploring Aotearoa.
"My message to Kiwis is, come and experience your own backyard and come and experience the cultural and hospitality here in Aotearoa," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in May.
But pricey flights due to physical distancing restrictions are dampening Aucklanders' prospects for a weekend getaway, and Boult is calling for a rethink on the "excessive" rules.
Under current restrictions, Air New Zealand can only sell 50 per cent of seats on turbo props and 65 per cent on A320 jets and has dropped many of its lead-in fares.
Current physical distancing rules will slash the number of seats available by 50,000 during the school holidays, the airline says.
Boult said he understood the need to protect Kiwis from Covid-19.
"However, given the requirement for masks I think the social distancing rules on aircraft are excessive. We're in an economically desperate situation and the district needs the additional travellers that a relaxing of distancing requirements would bring.
"We are aware of current unsatisfied demand by would-be visitors to the district, which is frustrating given the position local businesses find themselves in.''
The current alert levels are scheduled to remain in place until at least 11.59pm on Wednesday, September 16. The holidays begin 10 days later.
Air New Zealand says the current physical distancing requirements mean fewer Kiwis can hop aboard a plane for their next holiday, and those that can are paying a higher price.
"For example, if it were in place for the school holidays, there would be around 50,000 Kiwis whose holiday plans could be disrupted," said the airlines general manager commercial and offshore regions Michael Williams.
''Once physical distancing is removed, we're looking forward to opening up thousands of seats at lower prices."
Rival airline Jetstar has halted domestic flights altogether, after briefly reinstating 90 per cent of its jet routes, until the second wave of restrictions were imposed in mid-August.
"As a low-cost carrier, Jetstar is unable to continue its operations in New Zealand whilst there is a requirement for airlines to keep the middle seat free," the airline said last month.
"The limitations on the number of customers that are allowed on board our aircraft make the operations of our flights unviable."
Epidemiologists Professor Michael Baker and Associate Professor Nick Wilson agree that mask use should suffice for safe flying.
''Masks on planes are probably far more important than the empty seat between people and it is a reasonable trade-off to allow for airlines to work more efficiently,'' said Wilson.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa is also lobbying to have the restrictions relaxed, as chief executive Chris Roberts warns the holidays could be a lost opportunity for the struggling tourism industry.
"People want to make their arrangements for the school holidays now. New Zealand might be back in level 1 in time for the holidays, but that will be too late for many families to make plans," he said.
"As we saw in the July school holidays, there is strong enthusiasm from Kiwis to explore their country and visit friends and family. However, many people's travel plans may be thwarted by the current physical distancing requirements on aircraft," he said.
"If social distancing remains in place, there just won't be enough seats to meet demand during the school holidays. If people can't fly, other businesses from accommodation providers to visitor attractions and restaurants also miss out."
But Baker and Wilson warned that Auckland's growing numbers of Covid-19 could diminish an already small window of travel opportunities.
As part of a revised alert level system, travel should be banned out of any region where there is a designated outbreak (such as Auckland now) under level 2.5 and inter island travel from an outbreak area under level 2, they said.
Baker said their proposal was a mixed bag for travel.
''All of NZ outside Auckland could potentially move to a new alert level 1.5 with fewer restrictions if people were not allowed out of Auckland while we have transmission there.''