This afternoon New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Cook Island's PM Mark Brown issued a joint statement that quarantine free airline would commence on Monday 17 May.
A further fortnight after the launch of an agreement for quarantine-free Transtasman travel, the Cook Islands are ready for their own travel bubble with New Zealand.
The Islands have been laying the groundwork for a two-way bubble since the beginning of the year, and the launch of quarantine free travel from Rarotonga.
"Two way quarantine-free travel is a significant step in both countries' Covid-19 recovery," said Ardern.
Brown said the bubble was the result of "uncompromising commitment" to the highest standards of protection at the borders of both countries.
On Thursday the Cook Islands prime minister announced the islands would be adopting a 'traffic light' alert system which mirrored New Zealand's own.
Similarly the islands launched their own Covid contact-tracing app, developed in unison with New Zealand's and is interoperable – essentially meaning that both countries are using the same contact tracing system.
However it was a delay in the setup of a Cook Islands-based laboratory for testing suspected Covid cases that has pushed back the launch. This PCR processing lab, which is set to open next week, will allow the island to quickly trace and contain any potential imported Covid 19 outbreak – a step vital for reopening the islands to tourists.
A team from New Zealand's Ministry of Health is currently in the islands making final preparations. This process was summed up by one worker for Te Marae Ora to the Cook Island News as: "hectic" .
Prime minister Ardern said the arrangement would be similar to the one currently in place with Australia, with the final announcement pending on air partners and sign off by the director general of health.
The Islands will be making a final assessment of readiness for a travel bubble on Thursday.
The easing of travel restrictions means that the popular winter sunshine destination will again be open to New Zealand holidaymakers.
Tourism Cook Islands' Tourism body said islanders were "waiting with open arms and big smiles" after over a year without air links.
"Because tourism is the mainstay of our economy, this has caused significant financial hardship for many people," said Graeme West, Australasia GM for Cook Islands Tourism.
At this moment the Cook Islands - New Zealand agreement is a cautious restart, with measures to prevent Australians or recently returned Kiwis from travelling to Rarotonga.
However West said that a wider safe-travel area was a matter for further down the line, and that New Zealand provided two thirds of their historic inbound visitors.
The health and wellbeing of Cook Island citizens would be the top priority of the return to tourism operations, said West.
Cook Island travel checklist
Currently Auckland International Airport provides the only air bridge between New Zealand and the Cook Islands, via Air New Zealand.
This is likely to continue to be the case for the time being.
Virgin Australia which previously operated flights between Christchurch and the Cook Islands, ceased operating out of New Zealand in April last year.
Plans to launch a new airline serving Christchurch and the Cook Islands were scrapped last month after main backer, mortgage broker CEO Mike Pero complained of setbacks due to the global downturn in aviation. The airline Pasifika Air had failed to complete its Air Operators Certificate.
However, the interest around the bubble may see other direct routes return – such as the non-stop Sydney to Rarotonga service operated by Air New Zealand.
Following the bubble announcement, Air New Zealand said it would be adding an extra Auckland to Rarotonga service, with 4 weekly return flights from 7 June.
"Today's announcement is a major milestone for both New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Air New Zealand," said Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran.
Air New Zealand is currently selling daily flights to Rarotonga from May 10. The cheapest current return fare is $613.
Jetstar, which previously ran a service from Auckland is currently advertising fares online from $220, one way. However a spokesperson for the Australian carrier says it will not be returning to Rarotonga until Australia had its own safe-travel agreement.
"Our services to Rarotonga originate in Australia so are not part of the NZ/Cook Island bubble," he said.
"We look forward to the Australian Government working with the Cook Islands and other Pacific Island governments for two-way quarantine-free travel in the future."
New Zealand and the Cook Islands' vaccination programmes are ongoing, but quarantine-free travel will be opened to all regardless of Covid 19 immunisation status.
"Vaccination is not a precondition for travel," said the PM.
There will be no additional health checks, but passengers may have to answer some screening questions at check-in.
In order to fly, passengers must have been in New Zealand for at least 14 days prior to departure.
This includes quarantine-free travel to Australia, meaning any passenger travelling between the Cooks and Australia would have to plan in a two-week layover.
This two week period would also have to be observed on the return.
The New Zealand PM said that many of the caveats and warnings to travellers would be in place for the Cook Island bubble. As with flights to Australia, it would be done so at travellers' own risk and in the knowledge that agreements could change or be suspended quickly.
"If there is an outbreak in New Zealand, flights are likely to be paused," said Ardern. However, given the size of the Cooks – the PM said that unlike Australia, the advice in event of an outbreak would not be to shelter in place and the New Zealand government would consider repatriating New Zealanders.
Domestic airline Air Rarotonga has continued to fly island links from Rarotonga to the islands of Aitutaki, Aitu, Mauke and Mangaia.
The inter-island air services have been running on reduced capacity since last year, with three flights a week between Rarotonga and Aitutaki, however the carrier says it will be stepping up flights with a return in demand.
Service days are Monday, Wednesday and Friday with the Wednesday flight remaining on the ground in Aitutaki for the day - allowing for a day trip to the island lagoon.
Although the national contact tracing apps work interchangeably, you will need to download the CookSafe+ app before arriving in Rarotonga and switch Bluetooth tracking on.
Flying back to New Zealand
Flights from Rarotonga International Airport currently require a pre-departure health check.
Returning passengers will need to fill in arrival cards and may have to take a temperature check on return to Auckland. Passengers on quarantine-free flights from Rarotonga will use the same Green-zone separation plan as used by quarantine-free arrivals from Australian airports.
Scott Tasker Auckland Airport's GM of commercial air travel said that it will be "fantastic to welcome back more 'green' international travellers to its dedicated safe travel zone."