New Zealand's Tourism Minister Stuart Nash has issued a grave warning to tourism operators, saying it could be another "three to four years at least" before visitor numbers return to pre-coronavirus levels.
Nash made the stark comments during a whistle-stop visit of the struggling South Island seaside tourist town of Kaikoura last week.
After announcing another $13 million-$18m of funding to help prop up the ailing tourism hot-spots of Kaikoura, Mackenzie - Aoraki Mt Cook, Queenstown Lakes, Fiordland and South Westland, Nash told the Herald that they may face a long battle.
"What the airlines tell me is that it'll be three to four years at least before we get the same level of air traffic to New Zealand," he said.
His comments echo those made by global experts recently including the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Qantas also believes its international network is unlikely to be fully restored until 2024 at the earliest, even with digital "vaccine passports" being trialled worldwide.
The issue has divided the global aviation community. Canadian airline WestJet just laid off 400 pilots, while United Airlines last week announced it is rehiring about 300 pilots.
The New Zealand aviation industry, along with tourism operators, who are waiting to see if a transtasman travel bubble will happen, are hopeful that Nash's comments are nearer to a "worst-case scenario".
But Justin Tighe-Umbers, executive director of aviation industry group, the Board of Airline Representatives (Barnz), also thinks global passenger numbers won't likely fully recover until about 2024-25.
New Zealand's largest travel agency Flight Centre expects demand will return to pre-Covid levels by the end of 2023 or early 2024.
"Outbound travel is a vital part of the tourism eco-system and without it, Aotearoa will struggle to attract international air capacity, and everything that brings for a strong economy in New Zealand," said Flight Centre managing director David Coombes.
The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA), however, thinks numbers should be able to return much sooner than 2024-25.
"That would be the worst horizon I suggest, a very conservative horizon," NZALPA president Andrew Ridling said of Nash's comments.
The Bed & Breakfast Association New Zealand is advising its members to work towards a return to pre-Covid numbers by 2023.
If the 3-4 year timeline is correct, it will be "make or break for some bed and breakfasts", association president Donna Brooke said.
"We expect some to close and others to go into hibernation for a period of time," she said.
But there is some optimism, with many B&Bs receiving reservations for the peak period of January to March next year from international wholesalers and agents in the UK, Europe and USA.
"We are accepting these bookings with an understanding that they could very well cancel," Brooke said.
"Our advice to our members is to be flexible and fluid. The challenge of accepting these bookings is that it 'takes space' that could very well be filled by domestic bookings."
Air New Zealand was not able to respond to approaches from the Herald on Sunday yesterday.
A survey of New Zealand's tourism businesses last month revealed that 53 per cent of operators believe they will need to close within 12 months if the current situation doesn't improve.