Australia-New Zealand ‘travel bubble’ – how does it work and could it happen here?

Participants must still wear masks during the journey and are subject to health tests on arrival

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 21 April 2021 07:10
Australia-New Zealand travel bubble brings relief

A “safe travel area” has been launched between Australia and New Zealand.

Yet there are many strings attached – and it may not be an appropriate model for other parts of the world.

These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the big idea?

Since day one of the travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, 19 April 2021, thousands of people have begun flying in either direction across the 1,400-mile wide Tasman Sea that divides them. Neither tests nor quarantine are required of passengers.

Before the “safe travel zone” opened, a limited number of planes were flying between the two countries, with heavy restrictions.

While New Zealanders have been able to visit some Australian states since October 2020, they have had to quarantine on return.

But now there is a green corridor between the two nations. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, described the move as “world leading”.

How do I qualify?

People in either nation can fly to the other so long as they have not been in any other country in the past two weeks.

If they have had a positive Covid-19 test result, they must have written advice from a health practitioner declaring that they are no longer infectious.

Anyone awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test is not allowed to travel.

You need not be an Australian or a New Zealander – but you must have been in either nation in the past 14 days and have permission to be in the other country. Normal immigration rules apply: for short-term visitors to New Zealand, usually the NZeTA, and for Australia the free eVisitor permit.

How does it work?

Travellers just book flights as normal, either through an agent or online.

Heading for New Zealand, travellers must complete the NZ Ministry of Health declaration form with key details including:

  • flight number and arrival date
  • passport data (with an expiry date at least one month ahead)
  • planned address and contact number
  • emergency contact

It can be completed at any time before the journey, and should generate an email with a quarantine-free confirmation code that will allow you to check-in at the airport.

In addition, travellers should download the New Zealand Covid contact-tracing app for access to venues in their destination.

Travellers heading for Australia must complete a similar declaration form – but timing is critical. It must be submitted at least 72 hours but less than a week before departure.

To complicate matters, travellers may be required to complete declarations for their destination state or territory and any that they are passing through en route from New Zealand.

What happens during the journey?

Masks must be worn at airports and onboard the plane. They are not required for children under 12 years of age and those with other recognised exemptions.

At the departure and arrival airports they are channelled into green zones (separate from the red zones where other passengers who are required to enter 14 days mandatory quarantine are confined). 

At the arrival airport you are likely to undergo health screening, though this may be nothing more than a temperature check.

The Australia government warns: “For travel to other states and territories in Australia, you must check local requirements prior to travelling there. Some states and territories may require travellers from safe zone countries to quarantine on arrival.”

What’s in it for each country?

New Zealand’s economy has been severely dented by the coronavirus pandemic, and desperately needs to revive its tourism industry. While Australia has a strong economy with many citizens keeping the domestic tourism industry going, many citizens are fed up with being effectively locked into their country – as they have been since March 2020.

According to the aviation data specialist OAG Traffic Analyst, in 2019 6.4 million passengers who flew between Australia and New Zealand. Last year it fell by 77 per cent to just 1.5 million, the vast majority of that in the first three months of 2020.

New Zealand is normally heavily dependent on overseas visitors. In 2019 there were half a million NZ visitors to Australia, compared with one million going in the opposite direction.

Tourism is the nation’s biggest export earner, bringing in NZ$48m (£25m) per day, and employs almost one in 10 people in New Zealand.

In Australia, China was previously the leading source market for incoming tourists, but this year it will certainly be New Zealand.

What could possibly go wrong?

In the event of an outbreak in either country, local or state-wide lockdowns could be ordered. If a passenger on the flight subsequently tests positive, the other travellers onboard may be required to self-isolate.

On 20 April, a worker at New Zealand’s Auckland airport tested positive for Covid, just one day after the corridor began.

The New Zealand government warns: “Border rules can change quickly. Travellers must prepare for disruption to their plans.”

It specifies: “If alert levels change you must be prepared to stay where you are. This includes having enough money to support yourself should circumstances change. You might have to stay in a managed isolation or quarantine (MIQ) facility at your own expense.

“Health professionals will carry out temperature checks and health assessments as required.”

The Australian government warns: “Any change in the Covid-19 situation in Australia and New Zealand could lead to pausing or suspending quarantine-free travel arrangements without notice.

“You are responsible for managing any disruption to your travel plans, including if your return to Australia is delayed.”

In other words, make sure you have plenty of headroom on your credit card.

Is vaccination required?

No, which is just as well because both Australia and New Zealand are being relative slow at rolling out vaccines.

What are the rules for going anywhere else? New Zealanders can travel abroad, but for anywhere other than Australia they must quarantine on return. Australians must seek special permission to go anywhere other than New Zealand – and also undergo quarantine on return. 

Surely an Australian could simply go to New Zealand and travel on from there?

Any Australian citizens and permanent residents hoping to use the new option to escape further afield are warned they are “required to apply for an outward travel exemption before travel to New Zealand if you have booked an onward flight from New Zealand to another overseas destination”.

A possible loophole is booking a flight beyond New Zealand after arrival there.

But the Australia government warns: “Those who travel onwards from New Zealand to another international destination must be aware that returning to Australia or New Zealand is likely to be difficult due to the current restrictions on passenger numbers and the limited availability of flights.

“Those who seek to travel from New Zealand to another international destination and then return to Australia will be required to: present a negative Covid-19 test result to their airline within 72 hours prior to departure for Australia; enter 14 days mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival at their own expense; and be tested periodically while in mandatory quarantine. 

“The risks posed by overseas travel at this time, including possible disruption to return to Australia and from Covid-19 in many countries, remain high.”

What routes are open?

You must fly on a commercial airliner; private aircraft and journeys by sea are not permitted.

The main routes link the key Australian east coast hubs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with the three biggest cities in New Zealand: the capital, Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island; Christchurch, de facto capital of the South Island; and the nation’s largest metropolis, Auckland.

But many other routes are available. They include links from Sydney and Brisbane to Queenstown, New Zealand’s “adventure capital” in the South Island, and the overnight Air New Zealand flight from Perth in Western Australia to Auckland– a long-haul flight using a wide-bodied Boeing 787. The distance is the same as Manchester to New York. 

Both Qantas and Air New Zealand have started new routes to and from Auckland. The Australia carrier has launched a link from Gold Coast airport in southern Queensland, while the New Zealand airline is flying to Hobart in Tasmania.

Will other nations join and expand the bubble?

Some Pacific island countries are likely to become part of the “safe travel area”. More significantly Singapore – normally extremely well connected with Australia and with good links to New Zealand – could become the first Asian partner. 

What does the travel industry think?

Air New Zealand’s chief executive, Greg Foran said the evidence was of a “mixture of friends and family making up for a year of missed milestones, and business travellers keen to get moving again”.

He said: “We've certainly been looking forward to this moment for a few months now, so to finally have the bubble open is terrific. This will be a great boost for the New Zealand economy and tourism sector.”

The Independent asked Willie Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), for his response to the concept: an important model or a sideshow?

Mr Walsh was positive, saying: “Until we get to a situation where everyone is free to move again, these bubbles are teaching people how it’s possible to operate.

“I think it’s a good test. It’s good to see the passenger/consumer reaction, to see the airport reaction, to see the government reaction.”

When will British travellers be allowed to travel to Australia and New Zealand once more?

“Australia is in no hurry to open up those borders,” the prime minister, Scott Morrison said in a TV briefing this week. He didn’t want to put at risk “the way we are living in this country, which is so different to the rest of the world”.

In tune with that message, Tourism Australia is talking up international travel from 2022 onwards.

If anything, New Zealand is even more reluctant to contemplate opening up for more than Australia and Covid-free Pacific nations.

Could the UK establish one or more travel bubbles?

Despite the success of the UK’s vaccination programme, infection rates are still way ahead of those in Australia and New Zealand – and a “no test” regime is difficult to envisage coming into effect this year.

The UK government has talked about “travel corridors” for the past year, implying that there is some kind of deal with a partner country, but in practice it has simply been a question of imposing restrictions on departure or arrival rather than a bilateral agreement.

The most obvious target for a mutual travel corridor with some similarities would be between the UK (and probably Ireland) and the US.

But repeated testing would certainly be part of such an arrangement.

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