WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – The excitement marked the opening of a long-awaited travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand on Monday.
The start of non-quarantine travel has been a relief for families separated by the coronavirus pandemic as well as for struggling tourism operators. It marked the first tentative steps towards what the two countries hope will become a gradual reopening to the rest of the world.
The idea of a bubble between Australia and New Zealand had been talked about for months, but suffered setbacks due to several small outbreaks of the virus in the two countries, which were eventually eradicated.
To mark the occasion, Wellington International Airport painted a huge welcome sign near its main runway and Air New Zealand ordered some 24,000 bottles of sparkling wine, offering a free drink to adult passengers.
Air New Zealand director of operations Carrie Hurihanganui said the carrier had previously only made two or three flights a day between the two countries, but increased to 30 flights on Monday carrying 5,200 passengers.
She said the day was a turning point and people were excited.
“You can smell it at the airport and see it on people’s faces,” she says.
Leaders of both countries hailed the bubble, saying it was a top-notch arrangement as it aimed to both open borders and prevent the virus from spreading.
“Today’s milestone is a win-win for Australians and New Zealanders, boosting our economies while keeping our people safe,” said Australian Premier Scott Morrison.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country welcomes new arrivals.
“The bubble marks an important step in reconnecting the two countries with the world and it is a step that we should all take a moment to be very proud of,” she said.
Travelers who lined up at Sydney and Melbourne airports early on Monday said they were excited or relieved to finally make it to New Zealand after more than a year. Some visited family and friends, while others attended the funeral.
The two countries have succeeded in preventing the virus from entering by erecting barriers on the outside world, including strict quarantine requirements for travelers returning from countries where the virus is endemic.
Australia had previously allowed New Zealanders to arrive without going into quarantine, but New Zealand had taken a more cautious approach, forcing Australian travelers to complete a quarantine.
The onset of the bubble precedes the ski season in New Zealand and is good news for many tourist towns, including Queenstown Ski Resort.