The Government is being warned that New Zealand risks falling off the radar for overseas tourists if it retains self-isolation requirements.
Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signalled that the rules could be relaxed as the number of Omicron cases grows in this country, airports, airlines and tourist groups say the lack of clarity about self-isolation will stymie recovery of the $17-billion-a-year international tourist industry.
Smarting from bad international publicity about what has been described as a heartless MIQ system, the Government's reopening plan announcement concentrated on returning Kiwis from the end of this month, but it could be as late as July before international tourists can come back.
"We don't think the announcement goes far enough to signal to international markets that New Zealand is open to sell with confidence, and this is worrying. The self-isolation requirement is a demand destroyer if it remains in place," said Tourism Export Council chief executive Lynda Keene.
"If New Zealand is to have any chance of rebuilding its floundering international tourism sector, the Government must remove the self-isolation requirement for visitors as soon as it can. It's a complete handbrake that will keep New Zealand disconnected from the world, not reconnected."
She said it would crush any chance of an international tourism recovery.
"It's going to be touch and go for many. A number have already indicated they are struggling and might not make it to the starting gate. July might be too late."
Keene said she hoped there would be some form of financial support from the Government to help keep these businesses alive until visitors can return, and the council was keen to work with officials on exploring options.
Air New Zealand is bringing back pilots and cabin crew to cater for a surge in demand.
Chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty said the airline expected to have more than 300 flights available between New Zealand and Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast in March.
"Once we have a clearer view as to the level of demand, we will adjust the schedule accordingly, but we're confident there will be seats available for those who need them. As expected, we have seen strong demand following the announcement with our first flights on the 28 February almost sold out."
The airline is working through the required changes to its international schedule to align with 14 March for New Zealanders who are wanting to return home from the rest of the world.
Plea to Govt
Tourism Industry Aotearoa spokesperson Ann-Marie Johnson said the new border reopening dates were a helpful start for businesses to begin planning with more certainty.
They were a positive step towards reconnecting friends and family, and the return of visitors on working holiday visas from March would be welcome news to many employers in tourism and other industries who are struggling to find staff.
"But the Government's willingness to be flexible and remove self-isolation requirements ahead of schedule will be essential to the survival of the visitor economy. While these requirements are in place, New Zealand remains off the radar for international travellers."
Johnson said she was pleased the prime minister had noted the potential to move dates forward.
"The sooner we can signal intentions and timelines for reopening without the requirement for self-isolation, the sooner the industry can get its preparations underway."
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash said self-isolation times are likely to reduce and "could indeed be lower" by the time the country is fully open to international travellers.
"Health advice tells us we still need self-isolation to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when that will not be the case," he said.
"The steps are designed to open up in a managed way to balance inflows of travellers and fill our workforce shortages, while also ensuring our healthcare system can manage an increase in cases."
Nash said the five steps to opening up were also designed to give industries like tourism and hospitality the opportunity to deal with workforce shortages before the tap is fully turned on to international tourism in October.
Those on working holiday schemes play an important role in tourism, hospitality and the primary sector, and they can return from March. Seasonal workers and those with existing visas who are stuck offshore can return from April.
In a letter to Nash this week, TIA noted that quarantine-free travel should be possible within the second quarter of 2022, once the health concerns from the Omicron wave have abated.
"This would be a beacon of hope for the tourism industry, which otherwise faces another winter of difficult trading conditions," said Johnson.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa is also pushing for continued targeted Government support for businesses in the visitor economy until the requirements are relaxed, to ensure businesses survive.
"Otherwise, the coming months will result in many more business closures and job losses."
Off the map
Airports are also unhappy with the ongoing isolation rule.
Kevin Ward, chief executive of NZ Airports, says there will be many families who will be delighted by today's announcement and the aviation industry is looking forward to welcoming New Zealanders home.
"We are really pleased for Kiwis who have been stuck overseas and want to return home, however the continuing requirement for self-isolation means New Zealand will remain essentially off the map for international travellers and many airlines. People do not want to fly to New Zealand if they have to spend their first week sitting in a hotel."
Analysis by Auckland Airport has shown that a continued isolation requirement will have a significant negative impact on New Zealand's travel market, with demand from the Australian visitor market (excluding New Zealanders visiting friends and family) estimated at just 7 per cent of 2019 levels if the self-isolation requirement remains in place.
"A growing number of countries are allowing quarantine-free travel for qualified, fully vaccinated foreign travellers. Expecting self-isolation to still be required for travel to New Zealand later this year when the transtasman market reopens makes no sense," he said.
The Board of Airline Representatives said allowing more people to cross New Zealand's border and to self-isolate rather than do days in MIQ can't come a minute too soon.
''Some airlines have already stopped flying to New Zealand. Some have hung on with the help of cargo support. But the end of February is going to be crunch time," said board executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers.
"Self-isolation requirements need to go as soon as possible, or some airlines will cut New Zealand from their routes for a third summer in a row." he said.
By the end of this month, airlines will assign planes to routes for next summer.
"The airlines have told me they want to fly here, but they need to know New Zealand is open to business. Leisure and business travellers will not come if they have to self-isolate for days – it's a market killer."
International tourism spending had plunged to only $1.5 billion a year.