A two-way travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia has finally begun after more than a year of closed borders.
The first passengers of quarantine-free travel from Australia started to arrive at Auckland International Airport shortly after the plane touched down at 12.30pm.
There were joyous scenes as over a hundred people gathered in the airport to welcome their loved ones, cheering as each person entered Aotearoa.
A choir sang an extended version of Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home/Nau Mai Rā as travellers entered the arrival hall.
Auckland businessman Kevin Mackenzie was the first to emerge in the arrival hall.
"Benefits of carry-on," he said.
Mackenzie had been in Sydney on business and was fortunate enough to be there when the bubble was announced. "I was prepared to do the MIQ but this certainly beats that."
It was "a special" flight he said, with the plane full of families looking forward to reconnecting.
"This is what New Zealand is all about," Ashleigh told the Herald as she greeted her mother Marleen and introduced her grandson Boston to her for the first time.
"I've been waiting for this day for so long."
Oina Luatine and her granddaughter Ashleigh had been waiting patiently for another granddaughter Porchae to arrive from Melbourne.
Tomorrow one of Luatine's daughters is getting married, and Porchae, the only close family member overseas, was lucky to snap up one of the first flights home to make the special day.
"I can't wait to see her, I couldn't sleep last night," Luatine said before Porchae's arrival.
It was "mixed emotions" for the Finau whānau in Auckland today, with Amelia Finau reuniting with her sister Melefale Finganofo. Tomorrow they bury their brother.
"It is lucky she has got to come back, a lot of families have missed out on that opportunity unfortunately," Finau's son Tetai said. "So we are lucky, very happy to see her, but it is mixed emotions."
Seamus Matamua and his fiancé Auilagi Vaifale were waiting patiently, and a little nervously, to see Matamua's parents arriving from Sydney.
It's the first time Vaifale had met them, with the couple marrying in June. "I'm very excited, but a bit nervous," she told the Herald.
Matamua said it had been over two years since he'd seen his parents and he could not wait to be reunited.
"It's going to be quite emotional. I'm really looking forward to them finally meeting Auilagi."
It was also a chance to celebrate his mother's 60th birthday from March, when they'd meant to fly to Australia but had to cancel because of rising Covid-19 cases there.
Joining them were Matamua's sister Rowena Jimmy and her two children Claire, 10, and Gabriel, 7. "We all can't wait to see them, especially these two, can't wait to see their grandparents," Matamua said.
Sydney-based Rowan Heath was excited to finally see her 85-year-old mother Heather in Auckland today.
Heath, a 58-year-old teacher from Manly, will be one of the first Australians to take advantage of the transtasman travel bubble opening when she lands about 4.30pm.
With her two brothers also in Australia, Heath spoke to the Herald about how hard the separation from her beloved mother had been.
"At the beginning, she was very, very teary saying, 'I'm never going to see you again', and we were like, 'No it's okay', but at 85 you just don't know," she said.
"It has been awful, but thank goodness for digital technology because otherwise it would have been absolutely horrendous."
Normally, Heath crossed the ditch about four times a year. Now her whānau would be spacing out their trips to share time with their mother, who is in a rest home.
Heath expressed her gratitude for how New Zealand handled the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I've been really happy knowing that [mum] has been there, knowing that she's safe."
Excitement on the transtasman flights out of NZ
On the first transtasman flight from Wellington to Sydney this morning, there was a joyous energy that filled the plane.
Most people on board were eagerly awaiting a reunion with with family or friends across the ditch, and the air crew were also excited to be flying again.
Australians and New Zealanders reunited in Sydney to the backdrop of balloons, signs and the music of Kylie Minogue blaring through a speaker.
There were lots of tears and hugs as parents, siblings, cousins and friends reunited for the first time in over a year. Most families did not linger at the airport - eager to get out into the Sydney sunshine and enjoy each other's company again.
Emma and Angus Crampton were travelling to Sydney to visit their older brother Sam.
Emma had two trips to Sydney cancelled in 2020, and Sam had been unable to make her 30th birthday, which she spent in lockdown.
Having won flights through the Hits competition last week, they had just several days to get organised for their transtasman travel.
Emma said they had only found out on Friday they had won the competition.
"We were caught off guard making all the plans but we were lucky Angus is on uni holidays and my boss was so good about it."
Angus said they were so excited to see their brother Adam, and hoped he would bring his new boxer puppy with him in the car.
The siblings were best friends and this had been the longest they had ever gone without seeing each other.
Reuniting in Sydney, Sam said it was an emotional time and that "the best thing about seeing family is that everyone is still here". The family's health was the most important thing, he said.
"Now it's time to drink a thousand beers, play some golf, hang out, eat some nice food [and] introduce everyone to our puppy," Sam said.
"Now we can celebrate all the birthdays and good times that we've missed over the past 15 months."
Levi Teen was greeted in Sydney by his mum Felicity after 18 months apart.
Levi said he had been "waiting in anticipation for months" for a transtasman bubble.
When asked what he wanted to do today, he said he would go fishing and hopefully have a cold beer.
"It's really beautiful to have him home," Felicity said.
Annie Kane was on her way to visit her sick brother in Melbourne, who she has not seen for two years.
She already had a flight and MIQ booked prior to the announcement of the transtasman bubble, so she was feeling blessed that she now no longer had to quarantine.
Cheryl Mackie was departing from Wellington to go see her two daughters and grandson in Melbourne. "It's been 13 months," she said. "I never thought the day would come actually.
"I can't believe I'm here. I always thought there'd be another obstacle."
Dan and Jacqui Cottrell, with sons Charlie, Zachary and William, were off to Melbourne to see family who hadn't yet met their youngest boy. "[We're] a bit emotional," Jacqui Cottrell said. "They haven't met this little guy yet."
Dan said they would be driving up through Victoria to Albury, near the border with New South Wales.
"Jacqui is there for six weeks. I've got 10 days, I've got to get back to work."
Rara Akariri was at Auckland Airport, headed for Melbourne to see her daughter and five grandchildren, who are aged between 7 and 14. She hasn't seen them for two years.
Akariri said she was "over the moon" to hear about the transtasman bubble and expects it will be a tearful reunion on the other side when she arrives.
Nineteen-year-old Tyson Kempton was leaving from Auckland, bound for Sydney to visit his girlfriend who moved there a month ago. He's excited to see her and is looking forward to a big hug at the arrivals gate, something that would not have been possible only hours earlier.
Philip and Shobna Hillman were travelling to Sydney to visit a cousin and attend a wedding on Saturday. They had family and friends in Australia and hadn't visited since 2018.
Their biggest sacrifice had been leaving their daughter behind, they said.
"If it does go to custard, we don't want her to be stuck in Australia," Philip said.
"If it blows out in Australia, the bubble's off. If it blows out in New Zealand, the bubble's off."
But Shobna said she was hopeful the bubble was here to stay.
"We've done well, it's pretty amazing," she said.
"I think our management has been really good."
Peter Ferguson and his daughter Ciara, 9, were returning to Sydney after visiting family in Wellington.
Their travel had been planned Pre-bubble announcement, which was unfortunate timing but Ferguson said he was just relieved the bubble was now open.
As a Kiwi living in Australia, Ferguson said it had been tough to have the air bridge between the two countries closed since March 2020.
"Being a Kiwi living in Sydney, jumping on a plane to Wellington - where my parents are based - has been so easy in the past," he said.
"My parents come across several times a year and Ciara often flies unaccompanied in the school holidays to see my parents."
He was "cautiously optimistic" the transtasman travel bubble would run smoothly.
"I've been really impressed with the way Australia and New Zealand have managed it," he said.
"Australia and New Zealand are a great example to the rest of the world."
Maithily Thanikasalam was travelling to Sydney with her two children Keeran, 14, and Vaani, 9, to see her parents for the first time in over a year.
The family would be spending two weeks in Australia, as the children were luckily on school holidays.
"We're pretty excited to be on the first flight out of Wellington," she said.
She was looking forward to spending time with her parents and for her kids to see their cousins.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said he relished the ability to bring whānau together again.
"We're humbled to be part of these reunions and reconnecting people who have missed out on so much over the last year."
He anticipated the national carrier would operate more than 300 flights per week during the July school holidays.
Customers should plan to check-in at least three hours prior to departure on transtasman flights. Masks are required on board and in the airports.
In-flight service manager Michael Skeens - who has been flying domestically but this is the first Transtasman flight in about 14 months - said it was fantastic to see so many excited passengers on board.
"Reconnecting people [who] haven't had the pleasure of hugging somebody they're close to for the last 13 months - we feel really privileged to be part of that," he said.
Great to see Tasman going again
The first flight took off just after 7.30am. Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood said it's an important day that has taken a long time to get to.
"It's great to see Tasman going again, something that used to be about as uneventful as going to the supermarket, so it's certainly an exciting thing to get back to normal."
He said the transtasman bubble has taken longer than anticipated. "I think the path has been a bit unclear as we've all lived through the realities of Covid, and there's no straight-shot out of it either, there's always risks of things changing as we look ahead.
"The tourism industry and all travellers will be waiting to see how people feel about travelling again internationally, but I think it will gradually come back."
Littlewood told Newstalk ZB's Mike Yardley there were 32 return flights scheduled today. Last week there were 36 flights to Australia across the entire week.
"We've got a range of ports across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, as well as Gold Coast coming in. Later this week we'll have Hobart for the first time. So all up, nine ports across Australia."
Littlewood said Australia was Auckland Airport's biggest market and the Tasman connection was critical to the bottom line.