New Zealand could get direct air links to Tasmania as early as next month as the Australian state peruses a local travel bubble.
Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein told reporters that Hobart International Airport has almost completed the biosecurity, border and customs measures necessary to welcome trans-Tasman flights.
"Out of all of the countries that are our close neighbours, the one that we have the strongest and most likely chance of having a travel bubble operating would be New Zealand," he told reporters on Monday.
New Zealand and Tasmania's low community cases have highlighted the region as a front-runner in a potential state-by-state approach to trans-Tasman travel. Gutwein said readying the airport was an important part in showing Tasmania is ready for an air bridge.
"I think it's important that we've taken the steps so we can play a part in that."
While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the closure of many international air links, in this case it has provided an opportunity to revive an old flight route that was previously abandoned.
Hobart hasn't welcomed a direct New Zealand service for over 20 years. Air New Zealand pulled its last Hobart to New Zealand service in 1996 due to lack of viability.
Now, with Tasmania not recording cases of community transmission since last May it has become a front runner for a quarantine-free New Zealand air link.
In November Australian PM Scott Morrison announced $53 million of federal funding to support a planned 130 direct flights between Hobart and New Zealand.
Last month the state launched a national advertising campaign targeting 1 million New Zealanders, in anticipation of an air link.
Tourism Tasmania CEO John Fitzgerald told the Herald the campaign aimed to "prepare the market for direct flights between the two destinations" with airline negotiations "close to finalisation".
A spokesperson for MFAT said discussion between the New Zealand and Australian Governments to prepare for a two-way travel bubble.
"New Zealand looks forward to welcoming travellers from Tasmania and elsewhere in Australia once a safe travel zone commences," they said.
However, following recent cases of Covid-19 in the community it is New Zealand's track record on which the travel bubble may hinge.
Gutwein acknowledged that current travel arrangements are fragile but told Australian Associated Press that the pursuit of a travel bubble with New Zealand was worthwhile.
"If you go back four months ago that was looking increasingly difficult," he said.
On Sunday Australia resumed quarantine-free travel for passengers arriving from New Zealand, following three positive cases of Covid-19 in Auckland and Northland.
Quarantine-free travel for passengers in the opposite direction depends on the discretion of New Zealand. Speaking after the first cabinet meeting last month, prime minister Jacinda Arden said that two-way travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand was in doubt.
"It does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level. We haven't ruled out the possibility of state-by-state," said Ardern.
Who could be flying the route?
The last direct flight between Christchurch and Hobart International Airport was operated by Air New Zealand, over 20 years ago. However the Kiwi carrier could not say if it was involved in discussions regarding a new safe-travel route with Tasmania.
Air New Zealand's Chief Customer and Sales Officer Leanne Geraghty said the airline was "continuously evaluating our network and new route opportunities in line with customer demand."
While the current one-way travel arrangement and still requires travellers returning to New Zealand still needing to quarantine, she called it "a positive step towards opening up a Tasman bubble."
Geraghty said assessing all avenues of travel opportunity was an important step in rebuilding the network, after a challenging year:
"We assure customers that as soon as it is viable, Air New Zealand will be ready."
A spokesperson for the Australian carrier Qantas said it was "in ongoing conversation with governments about new route opportunities, particularly with changing Covid travel restrictions," but was not able to comment on a specific Tasmania- New Zealand route.
The Australian government began pledging a return to direct Hobart-New Zealand flights since November last year. However, these plans had suffered from localised outbreaks of Covid-19 and various setbacks.
Due to the complexities of international route and the absence of a two-way travel bubble, would mean that any carrier would be unlikely to announce a new route under current travel restrictions.
The decision would be government-led, and made on both sides of the Tasman before airlines commit to a route. However, Tasmania's tourism board and international airport appear to sense that this announcement could be on the way.