New Zealand reopened its borders to 60 countries today.
As the first of 21 international flights touched down on the runway at Auckland International at 5:45am, international tourists made a modest but vocal number of arrivals.
Although, you'd be forgiven for not being able to pick out the leisure travellers from the crowd of returning Kiwis.
Flights from Los Angeles, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore delivered their first vaccinated visitors from visa-waiver countries in over two years.
The forecasted 33,000 arrivals this week, is still 100,000 short of what it was at the end of 2019. Changes in booking behaviour and limited number of aircraft have made this hard to predict, but airlines are saying travel is well on the way to recovery.
Emirates' regional manager Chris Lethbridge called it an "exciting day for the industry" but air travel was still 12 months away from "normal" air links.
Currently inbound tourists from visa-waiver countries may find it difficult to find space on inbound services.
"We were amazed at the uptake from New Zealanders since the borders reopened for quarantine free travel. We've been pretty full since April," he said.
In spite of the demand, Emirates continues to operate reduced services into New Zealand.
The airline, which used to be the second largest foreign carrier flying into New Zealand, is now serving Auckland with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur.
Dubai's non-stop routes are still without a restart date. However the airline says it will be back by the end of the year.
As will the famous A380 superjumbos. The four-engined, double-decker planes were something of a calling card for the airline, along with Emirates' flying lounge bar at the back of the business class cabin.
The first A380 service will touch down in Christchurch after November, he says.
However across the network the number of A380s in service is still at 60 per cent.
"One of the biggest challenges is re-recruiting crew," says Lethbridge, who knows there are passengers that are keen to see the Boeing 777 service replaced with the giants. Apart from being a favourite with leisure travellers, the jumbos increase the number of passengers carried from 350 to 853.
However the upgauaging of seats into New Zealand is still hard to predict.
"There has been a huge change to behaviour, and the booking window is still quite short," he says.
Since the pandemic air travellers have left booking flights up to the last minute. Too many have had their 'fingers burned' by cancellations or changing travel requirements during the height of Covid-19's impact on travel. Yet this makes it very difficult to assign extra capacity to routes ahead of schedule.
Even with the typical leisure travel peaks of winter, outbound travel and inbound around Christmas and summer.
Although there is some return of forward booking from New Zealanders, Lethbridge's advice to travellers is to "book as soon as you can."
"The rest of the world is open and we are in direct competition for flights."
New Zealand has been one of the last countries to ease Covid-19 border restrictions. As an effect there could be a prioritisation of destinations like Australia, which already has daily direct flights to Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne.
There have been signs of certain travellers being quicker to return to the skies than others.
Solo travellers currently make up more than half of Emirates' passengers to and from New Zealand. While there are a large number of repatriation and family groups booking, Lethbridge says its a strong indicator that youth travel is returning along with much-delayed OEs. As are corporate travellers for SMEs, while many larger businesses weigh up the pros-and-cons of a return of business travel.
Low impact, high quality tourists?
There's still clearly a lot of ground to cover before New Zealand's international tourists return to numbers recognisable from pre-pandemic.
In some cases there is a question if visitor numbers will or should return to pre 2018 levels.
The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there was no intention of introducing a "cap on tourists" entering New Zealand but for certain experiences visitor numbers would be controlled.
"33000 arrivals a week is not back up to the full scale of what we've experienced previously."
She told RNZ this morning that controls for sustainable visitor numbers were in the works alongside the recovery.
"Milford is an example of working with locals to make sure tourism is of the lowest impact but highest quality."