New Zealanders eager to see the world again have their sights set on destinations near and far, writes Ewan McDonald
Here's a pitch for a 2022 revival of Survivor NZ: take five million people who've been locked down and locked in for more than two years and gently persuade them it's time to make and take their own lifestyle choices.
Guess what? More and more Kiwis will choose to vote themselves off the islands.
Faster than MFat can update its travel advisories to say where's in and where's still out or possibly not a terribly good place to visit at the moment, New Zealanders are pointing and clicking at airline, travel agents and online booking websites, eager to get out and see the world again.
Of course, when we do take off, travelling won't be quite the same as the good old days – in other words, two years ago. You have to factor in pre-flight Covid tests, travel insurance and having to think about what happens if you feel a throat coming on during that dream trip to see the wildebeest. So, the not-quite-so brave new world, then.
First things first. As more and more destinations open up, where are Kiwis keen to fly or holiday? Because we're a responsible news organisation that likes to follow the science and provide verifiable facts you can trust, we asked booking.com to share its data on what destinations New Zealanders are searching.
They've been around since 1996 and have the algorithms to prove they're one of the world's leading digital travel companies. We asked for their stats for Kiwi-based searches in January and February for potential trips in the next two or three months.
If you can remember which rules were in place at that time, you probably won't be too surprised to read that Rarotonga topped the list, followed by the Gold Coast, Dubai (stopovers, probably), London, Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Brisbane, Arutanga (Aitutaki, Cook Islands) and Honolulu.
Most of those destinations tally with Flight Centre Travel Group's recent survey of its New Zealand database. OECD data reveals Aotearoa has the fourth-highest rate of foreign-born residents and the second-highest rate of citizens living overseas.
The pandemic prevented many of these people from being able to connect with loved ones over holidays, weddings, birthdays, funerals and everything else we get together for. Thirty per cent of those surveyed said the main reason to travel would be to reconnect with family and friends.
On Qatar Airways' website, New Zealanders trawled slightly wider. The top 10 destinations searched in February were London, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Delhi, Johannesburg, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Cape Town.
Air New Zealand's chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty says the national flag-flyer is excited to be able to bring Kiwi families back together as border restrictions ease.
"In the past few weeks, we've seen international bookings overtaking domestic ones for the first time since Covid took hold, recognising our domestic network is also currently impacted by the Omicron outbreak.
"Flights across the Tasman have been booking fast since the removal of self-isolation was announced, with the most popular cities being Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. On our long-haul network, we're seeing particular interest in journeys to North America, Europe and the UK."
Geraghty says the airline has more than 50 flights a week on 15 international routes and will add capacity to meet demand as it heads into our winter season.
"It's safe to say Air New Zealand has been preparing for people wanting to head abroad once again, so we're ready and raring to welcome customers back on board."
After two years of what they might call "less than ideal trading conditions" on the business pages, major travel agencies are gearing up to cope with Kiwis' pent-up desire to get out into the world again.
Celeste Ryall, House of Travel's customer engagement director, says it's not surprising there's a lot of interest in traditional favourites – Fiji, the Cook Islands, UK, US and Canada.
"A lot of people are looking to Australia to connect with friends and family in the short term and committing to trips further afield as travel restrictions are eased.
"After several years of missing out on travel we are seeing people travelling for longer periods, looking to tick off bucket-list experiences and treating themselves to Business Class and other upgrade opportunities."
Ryall offers a word of caution: "Because of pent-up demand across the globe and given that the New Zealand market has not begun travelling as quickly as other markets, we are starting to see capacity issues as popular experiences and destinations fill up." She recommends travellers bring their ideas to the consultant's desk as soon as possible, "so they do not miss out".
Many wondered how cruising – global travel's fastest growing segment prior to the pandemic – would weather queasiness about large numbers of people in smallish spaces, mass dining and socialising, and hygiene requirements.
Ryall reports that cruises have continued to be popular. "The cruise industry has ramped up health and safety protocols and more than seven million people have safely taken a cruise worldwide since cruises have restarted," she says.
Habits may be changing, however. "As people make up for lost time with longer holidays, many lines are offering back-to-back itineraries – meaning you can combine several itineraries to see more of the world while avoiding busy airports and border controls. The attraction of a holiday offering multiple destinations, meals, transport and entertainment all included is seeing some cruises sell out in record time."
Ryall says cruise ships are scheduled to start arriving in New Zealand from October with a busy season planned, "which will be so important to our regional economies and will be a shot in the arm."
However, there's still some uncertainty over when the ships will start berthing. The industry was notably absent from recent government statements about the border reopening strategy.
Its industry body, the NZ Cruise Association, has been meeting officials for months to discuss reopening the sea border and says bureaucrats need to stop dragging the anchor.
Chief executive Kevin O'Sullivan says lines need three to four months' set-up time. "Realistically speaking March is the month when decisions need to be made so the cruise lines can look at the maritime border opening and begin to make preparations."
Bookings are strong and it's shaping up to be a successful season if it goes ahead, he told the Herald last week.
David Coombes, managing director of Flight Centre Travel Group NZ, agrees early signals show travel is having a strong bounce-back.
Within 24 hours of the Prime Minister's announcement that the self-isolation requirement would be scrapped for returning Kiwis, the company's online bookings for international flights increased by 66 per cent. The Cook Islands, Fiji and Australia and parts of Europe were proving the most popular.
"What we've seen in our other markets around the world is that once we hit that Covid peak, travel quickly returns to about 60-70 per cent of what we were selling pre-Covid.
"We've been speaking with our retail stores from Invercargill up to Kerikeri and they have been run off their feet with people ready to book travel again. It's a truly exciting time for the industry."
But he also cautions: "There is no denying that travel will be more complex in 2022 with new protocols and precautions at every stage of the journey," and advises New Zealanders to go old-school, pre-internet style, and use a local travel agent.
For good reasons, too. Coombes cites complex travel regulations here and abroad, Covid 19 testing, insurance cover and support if travellers need to make any changes to their bookings.
"We understand there is more to think about when travelling overseas in this pandemic-era and are here to help our customers navigate this new reality of travel with confidence."
Coombes also urges the Government to move quickly on allowing international tourists into New Zealand. "We are the outbound segment of a broader travel and tourism eco- system, and for it all to work well we need inbound travel too. It would be amazing to see tourists back in New Zealand as early as Easter."
More data: booking.com reports the top three countries searching Aotearoa from outside the Shaky Isles in January-February were Australia, the UK and the US.
Brett Mitchell, managing director of Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel, popular with Kiwis for its small-group adventure itineraries, echoes Ryall's and Coombes' comment about New Zealand's "huge pent-up demand for travel".
"We know that people are keen to travel, catch up with friends and family and explore new places. Over lockdown periods, people have had plenty of time stuck at home to dream about that much longed-for adventure or the trip they've always wanted to take.
"With international borders reopening, we believe 2022-23 will be big for those bucket-list trips.
"Where people travel will depend on aviation routes and borders opening. However, we are seeing strong interest in our Morocco trips from New Zealand travellers. Nepal is also trending, and Australia, Vietnam, Japan and the US are all looking strong for Kiwis. We also expect to see Antarctica bounce back from Kiwis looking to have a trip of a lifetime."