Tourism operators in the Cook Islands are meeting the restart of quarantine-free travel from New Zealand on Friday with cautious optimism.
The first flight of vaccinated passengers is set to take off at 8:45 am on Friday from Auckland as the start of Air New Zealand's new daily quarantine-free link to Rarotonga.
Launching in the historic low-season, the airline said it was flying with some spare capacity and was "not planning to schedule additional services at this time."
Having last relaunched a quarantine free link in May last year, only to pause flights in August, there is some caution on the part of travellers as well as tourism and leisure businesses.
Yet, there is the feeling that this time will be different.
From January 13 onwards, certain venues will require proof of vaccination for entry. After two years as a Covid-free island in the Pacific, measures that have become commonplace in post-pandemic New Zealand have only just arrived.
Only a single case of Covid-19 has ever been recorded on Rarotonga. In spite of this, the Cook Islands have achieved vaccine coverage of over 90 per cent.
"We are ready, we are prepared, and we are protected. Now it's time," said prime minister Mark Brown when he approved the air link last week.
The view from the islands' tourism industry on what's ahead is of anticipation.
"We are just excited to be opening up for business," said Téa Croccombe, manager for Raro Safari Tours.
Bookings for midyear are already coming in, proof Kiwi tourists are on their way. As to whether Covid might also reach the Cook Islands, Téa is resigned:
"We know it's coming no matter what," she says. "Most of the Cook islands have gotten their jabs, plus the booster, so we should be ok.
Lynn Tuavera of Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes shares the same nervous excitement.
Having watched the other travel restarts on other Pacific Islands and the arrival of Delta and Omicron variants, she says there is some concern.
"We have been watching quite closely what is currently happening in Fiji," she says.
In December Nadi and the Fijian islands updated the travel rules for visitors to contain more contagious strains of Covid-19.
"After the last restart in May and the borders closing so suddenly in August we are a bit apprehensive about jumping in boots and all," she says, but the tours would be ready and open to run activities to meet demand.
Most operators are not expecting large numbers once the borders open on Friday, but some sectors are expected to get busy quickly.
Resorts on the smaller, lagoon island of Aitutaki are already seeing demand from New Zealand tourists.
According Air Rarotonga, which runs domestic air links, says in spite of some travel hesitancy they have seen a noticeable pick up for transfer links through partners at Air New Zealand.
"It looks like they will give Aitutaki accommodation operators good business," says managing director Ewan Smith.
However, factors including the time of year, travel hesitancy and restrictions on unvaccinated children under 12 means everyone is expecting a slow start to quarantine free travel.
"We are seeing much stronger booking activity for travel in April and beyond," says Smith.
New travel conditions for travelling to the Cook Islands
Vaccinated travellers, over 12 only
All visitors must be fully vaccinated. Children under 12 years will not be able to travel. Once the cohort 5-11 years of age are eligible to be vaccinated and can provide proof of travel, they will be allowed to visit.
Covid-19 test required before departure
Travellers must provide a negative PCR test result no more than 48 hours before departure and show the negative result at departure and on arrival.
Additional tests for Aitutaki
Travel to Aitutaki is permitted with no further test required for connecting travel straight through from Rarotonga. If travellers are staying any number of days in Rarotonga prior to going to Aitutaki, they will be required to undergo a Rapid Antigen Test before boarding.
Contact tracing and pre-arrival forms
Visitors will be required to complete a Cook Islands contact form within 96 hours before departing New Zealand. Travellers will be required to download the Cooksafe+ contact tracing app and will be given a personal QR code on arrival, to be used in the Cook Islands.