Travel agents say there is significant pent-up demand for holidays across the Tasman - when a two-way travel bubble is started.
About half the three million-plus trips taken a year by Kiwis before the pandemic were to Australia and the group representing hard-hit agents say many of their clients are eager to dust off their passports as soon as possible.
Travel Agents Association of NZ president Brent Thomas said members had been buoyed by speculation of an announcement as early as Monday of a start to a quarantine-free bubble.
Australia has allowed quarantine-free entry for much of the six months (aside from some community outbreaks here) but New Zealand requires anyone travelling to this country to quarantine for 14 days, effectively killing off leisure and most business travel. Yesterday, under mounting pressure to fix a bubble start date, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that would happen ''soon'' but the Government wanted an arrangement that would stick.
Association president Brent Thomas said there were about $500 million in credits held by airlines and overseas suppliers and some of these would be used on trips to Australia.
He said there would be reduced airline capacity across the Tasman and this would push up prices.
Most demand initially would be from those anxious to visit friends and relatives, business travellers and then those desperate to get to Australia for a holiday. Package deals would not be priced as they were prior to the pandemic when about 30,000 people a week were flying to Australia.
''At the end of the day it's not going to be ridiculous in terms of pricing because they need to get bums on seats,'' said Thomas.
Flying could be a ''different experience'' from what people were used to with health requirements on planes and through airports but the aviation industry had been working for months on processes to make it as smooth as possible.
''We're all just waiting for the green light to be given. We're coming into winter and Queensland and Sydney will certainly beckon.''
He said New Zealand was lucky to have Australia as the likely starting point for quarantine-free travel as there was a vast array of destinations and experiences within one country.
"For example, resorts like Hayman Island offer a great alternative to the Maldives, while cruise locations such as the Kimberley and the Great Barrier Reef can stand in for the Mediterranean."
He said the reopening of the transtasman border would also serve as a lifeline for New Zealand's inbound tourism market.
More than 130,000 visitors arrived here from Australia in February 2020. Of these, almost 40 per cent were visiting friends and relatives, with roughly the same percentage identifying a holiday as their main travel purpose.
Twelve months of pain
Exactly a year ago New Zealand closed its borders and the association says 70 per cent of agents had been lost to the industry.
Staff numbers were down from 5000 staff in February 2020 to just 1500 today.
Although store closures were running at around 50 per cent, many agencies that have so far avoided total closure have effectively gone into hibernation, with staff working reduced hours and taking on secondary employment, said Thomas.
Thomas said those which have remained open for business have invested long hours in assisting clients with repatriation, postponements, cancellations and refunds.
Agents were working around the clock this time last year to get stranded Kiwis home and chasing up hundreds of millions of dollars of refunds prior to a Government scheme which was introduced in August through which $352m has been returned.
Under the Government's Consumer Travel Reimbursement Scheme agents are paid 7.5 per cent of the value of all cash refunds they are able to successfully recover for their customers and 5 per cent of the value of all credits successfully secured or rebooked for international travel.
The cut for agents is capped at $47m and the scheme will end in the middle of the year. Agents had lobbied for close to four times the sum and want the scheme extended.
Thomas said agents would continue to play an important role.
"When the borders do eventually reopen, travel agents are going to play an essential role in getting those credits unlocked and into the hands of consumers," he said.
"Clients who choose to work with a travel agent will be able to leverage their expertise and supplier relationships, and thereby avoid the stress of trying to navigate the process themselves."
Personal and business costs
The Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum (ANZLF) says in the last 12 months the 600,000 New Zealanders living in Australia and 75,000 Australians in New Zealand haven't been able to easily travel to see families and friends face-to-face.
This meant they hadn't been able to share important occasions like weddings and other milestone events, said the forum's co-chair Ann Sherry.
"And it's not just those wonderful, personal connections. Our countries are very closely linked economically, with around $27 billion in two-way trade flowing between New Zealand and Australia (pre-Covid-19).''
This meant about 400,000 business trips a year across the Tasman.
"Things seem to have stalled since Australia opened its doors to New Zealanders travelling quarantine-free nearly six months ago. That one-way arrangement was based on an assessment by Australian health officials that New Zealand poses a low risk of Covid-19 transmission to Australia.''
Sherry said both countries have successfully managed the health risks of Covid-19, with testing and tracing regimes that are quickly snuffing out any cases appearing in the community.
''Now with vaccination rolling out in New Zealand and Australia it's time the low risk of transmission between the countries is recognised with more open travel arrangements."
The forum's New Zealand co-chair Greg Lowe said the aviation sector has been preparing to re-launch transtasman travel for some time and produced a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for a transtasman Safe Travel Zone - without a managed isolation period.
"It is now 10 months since that plan was presented to both prime ministers for the two-way travel zone to be established. We appreciate the huge amount of time and energy by officials in both countries to reach agreement on the Safe Travel Zone, and the time has now come to get this done," he said.
Sherry said the blueprint recognised the different risk-profiles of travellers arriving at the border based on how prevalent Covid was in the communities they came from.
The aviation sector had introduced new processes, infrastructure management and enhanced cleaning protocols to manage the different risk levels. Australia has also responded with temporary suspensions of its quarantine-free travel when Covid-19 cases emerged in New Zealand.
On each occasion the bubble was reopened after a short period once risk assessments were carried out.
Lowe said that ideally travel would not be suspended at short notice whenever there is a Covid-19 case in the community.
''But we have to be realistic. Short, sharp border closures are how each country has been operating, including at a domestic level, to manage community hotspots and both governments will want to be able to pull those levers on transtasman travel if necessary, alongside other possible measures such as pre-departure Covid testing.''