Our traditional disadvantage of being at the bottom of the world seems to have some advantages after Covid-19.
We have some pressing choices to make around how we use those advantages.
International tourism, our largest export, stopped in March. It accounted for about $17 billion or about 20 per cent of our export earnings in the year to March 2019. Most of its large short-stay component won't resume any time soon.
International student education accounts for about $5 billion of the $17 billion international tourism sector.
The growth in our education exports was a clever achievement by Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Under Clark, our education exports grew from about $300 million in 1999 to about $2 billion in 2008. Infometrics estimates education exports generated 32,000 jobs in 2016.
This growth is clever for several reasons.
It contributes to educating our own kids by offering them bigger, more diverse and better equipped secondary and tertiary education institutions.
It offers our best and brightest academics the opportunity to stay in New Zealand and contribute directly to the growth of our nation.
The export dollars the sector earns are distributed all over New Zealand. For example, Infometrics estimates that Invercargill generated $46 million in export earnings from education in 2016.
By providing education to foreign students, many whom will be future leaders in their countries, we are building strategic and personal links with our trade partners.
We have been doing this for a long time. New Zealand was a founding partner of the now 70-year-old Colombo Plan, under which many students from Asia were educated in New Zealand. New Zealand Government Scholarships, that bring hundreds of students to New Zealand each year for education and training, is one of our largest foreign aid programmes.
Our education exports are really clever.
However, due to our Covid-19 border rules, international students are currently unable to enter New Zealand.
While these rules were certainly necessary at the time they were made, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify their continued blanket application. We can be more selective now.
Our knowledge of the virus' epidemiology has increased, our border quarantine procedures have proven robust, our health system's capabilities have improved and our testing and contact tracing are strong. And we see that the health status of many of the places from which these students might come are almost as robust as ours.
The health risk of resuming education exports is low, as demonstrated by the 7000 people who have passed through our border quarantine system since it was established on April 10.
The benefit to our economy of allowing foreign students into New Zealand for the start of the second university semester of 2020 is high.
A transtasman bubble and a resumption of education exports could halve our Covid-19 loss of export earnings to $8 billion in months. A late and slow restart fails to capitalise on our "Covid-free" advantages and instead creates further education sector risks and costs.
Australia hopes to restart its education exports at the same time as it creates a transtasman travel bubble with New Zealand. They are aiming for July. Their goal is to attract high-value students who might otherwise go to the United Kingdom or the United States in September. We can do the same.
There is much to do for New Zealand to be ready.
The Ministry of Health should clearly communicate, by early June, the practical rules for a border exemption for the entry of students.
It will take six weeks for students to make their decisions and travel through our carefully managed and assured entry pipelines involving inter-government co-operation, visas, payment, pre-travel health certification, charter flights, secure quarantine, pastoral and health care and then enrolment.
The Ministry of Health should not pick winning and losing secondary and tertiary education institutions by working with some and not others. Instead it should establish the rules and assurance for a safe restart across the board.
Let any institution wanting to meet the ministry's requirements do just that.
Let the ministry gain the necessary confidence of New Zealanders by its early public statements and actions.
We have a choice to restart education exports now. It is a safe and clever choice.
• Andrew Body is a company director and investment banker with a lifelong passion for education.