After a long nine months, New Zealanders have begun dreaming about a quarantine-free holiday, with two travel bubble announcements sparking a surge in enquiries for flights and accommodation in the Cook Islands and Australia.
The Minister responsible for Covid-19, Chris Hipkins, is meeting Air New Zealand's leadership today to hammer out some of the details after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday that Cabinet had agreed in principle to a transtasman bubble early next year.
The news came two days after she revealed plans were in place to allow travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand by the end of the first quarter of 2021.
Both arrangements would allow travellers to bypass quarantine requirements in both countries.
It has been a long nine months of no overseas travel for most Kiwis.
On March 16, all travellers coming into the country except from the Pacific Islands were required to self-isolate for 14 days.
Three days later, borders closed to all non-residents.
On April 10, all returnees to the country were required to go into a managed isolation facility.
Flight Centre NZ general manager of product Victoria Courtney said people were coming into their stores every day asking about the islands and Australia.
Some were even booking flexible travel for tentative dates.
"Many customers would commit now, regardless of the bubble, but vacancies in MIQ are scarce."
House of Travel had also seen a notable increase in inquiries
Since Saturday's announcement, Rarotonga had been the most viewed deals page on the company's website for the past three days, a spokesperson said.
But Travel Industry Suppliers Group chair Robyn Galloway said the timeline was too vague.
"The PM said in August it was looking like travel would be open for Christmas, and businesses now aren't sure whether to get ready for March."
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the Government's timeline was "sensible".
"Australia and New Zealand are pursuing an elimination strategy with this virus and several of the Pacific islands are doing something very similar, which is exclusion of the virus entirely. The goal is exactly the same, which is to have zero transmission in the community and all of us seem to be achieving that goal.
"One of the benefits is quarantine-free travel between countries that achieve the same status. So I think now is very much the time to be looking at this."
Act leader David Seymour said: "Confirmation from the Prime Minister that the Australian travel bubble is on the same go-slow schedule as the Cook Islands is a blow to all New Zealanders and Australians.
"Suggestions that airlines with grounded fleets need time to get up and running is more of an indictment on the Government than anything else," he said. "Tell them when to be ready and I'm sure they'll be ready."
Wellington Airport corporate affairs general manager Jenna Raeburn said the airport had been ready for the two bubble arrangements for "several months".
"We will be prepared to go as soon as the Government and airlines can confirm arrangements."
Raeburn said the airport had previously operated 70 flights across the ditch a week. "We are feeling the loss of our connection to our closest neighbour."
National's spokesman for the Covid-19 response, Chris Bishop, said the transtasman announcement had come "far too late".
"New Zealanders have been able to travel to Australia without quarantining since October 16, but the same won't happen in New Zealand until well into next year, costing our businesses and their staff dearly.
"Much like the Cook Islands non-announcement on the weekend, [yesterday's] news gives the glimmer of progress without any real substance to it."
Just when within the first quarter the transtasman travel bubble will officially open is not yet known — Ardern said she would announce it in the New Year.
She would not be drawn on questions on timing, as she said that could lead to the premature booking of flights or cancelled MIQ bookings.