A "mass exodus" of superyachts is predicted to flatten New Zealand's marine industry as uber-wealthy owners send their boats en masse to French Polynesia where quarantine-free entry is now open to Covid-19 vaccinated tourists.
Since June 9 when the French Polynesian Government announced the quarantine-free travel exemption, the first of several huge transport ships has been loaded with dozens of pleasure yachts moored in Auckland marinas.
The MV Dynamogracht departed Auckland last week with 20-odd smaller superyachts set for Tahiti, then the US and Europe.
Some owners are paying over $500,000 (NZD) to get their yacht out of New Zealand to the Northern Hemisphere.
Superyacht agent Duthie Lidgard says the departure of the yachts is because New Zealand still doesn't have a border exemption criteria for yacht owners to enter the country.
"We're going to get a mass exodus soon because Tahiti - anyone who's vaccinated can arrive into French Polynesia with no MIQ," Lidgard predicted.
"So now all the owners are going 'all my boats that are in the Pacific, get to French Polynesia'. This is so they can all fly in and start using their boats. So by July we'll see a fairly substantial exodus of boats here at the dock [Auckland]."
Under the Government's refit and repair maritime border exemption, a yacht having at least $50,000 of work done in a Kiwi boat yard can be approved to arrive on our shores.
A full international crew sailing the yacht can quarantine some or all of their 14 days at sea or in dock, before entering New Zealand as "essential workers".
The sticking point for owners of these yachts is that they are not included in the essential worker exemption, which many had hoped would have been expanded before the America's Cup this past summer.
"The boats had been sitting here before the America's Cup. There's no crew in NZ left with experience in a sense that don't want to leave New Zealand, so the only way is to ship these boats out [on MV Dynamogracht] which is a shame," Lidgard said.
"Local guys are taking the boat and loading it onto a ship here at Ports of Auckland, on deck cargo and people are paying close to $80,000 - some up to $400,000 US to get the boat shipped to the States. There's no crew."
A Ministry of Health (MOH) spokesperson highlighted several differences between New Zealand's maritime border and French Polynesia that needed to be considered when relaxing entry restrictions.
"The maritime border is bigger, has more points of entry into New Zealand with a greater range of vessels arriving, and comes with its own complexities," the spokesperson said.
"Several government agencies are collaborating to see how the maritime border can open in a safe and effective way. Consideration is being given to how and when the maritime border might be opened up, and to whom."
However, asked about the prospect of a Covid-19 vaccination exemption into New Zealand without MIQ, the spokesperson said not all countries are the same and "there is still more we need to learn about the effect of vaccination on the transmission of and immunity to the virus."
Regardless of vaccination status, MIQ will still be required "until the evidence becomes clearer", MOH said.
NZ Marine Industry Association executive director Peter Busfield was less pessimistic than agent Lidgard on the departing superyachts, saying they were hopeful the maritime border would be open to international owners by next summer.
"NZ Marine are indeed aware of the recent opening of the French Polynesian borders to approved superyachts, vaccinated owners, crew and general tourists. We are less concerned by, and more encouraged by this development," Busfield said.
"After a long period with vessels being constrained in NZ we see this as less of a 'mass exodus' and more of a normal seasonal relocation of vessels to a tropical Pacific location.
"French Polynesia is a gateway and stepping stone to the Pacific and we see their opening as a drawcard to attract and encourage superyachts back to our part of the world."
Superyacht agent John Vitali echoed that the next summer season would be crucial to the health of the local marine industry in coming years.
"It's obviously a very different world.. Typically people have just had to make their own decisions and go to places they feel comfortable they can do their next expeditions from," Vitali said.
"But next season I think will be a bit of a defining one for superyachts. We'll just have to wait and see."
Yet Lidgard says he's heard nothing about MOH planning eased restrictions on superyacht owners entering New Zealand
"Unfortunately, it's because everyone waves the flag 'rich people are buying their way in'," Lidgard said.
"However, we've all got jobs because rich people have been waving their flag."