Trans-Tasman bubble: It may reopen next year and it might not be the same as before

The travel bubble has been popped, but is there any chance left that it could be reinflated?

Friends and families split between New Zealand and Australia, industries hit hard by border closures, health experts and politicians all have a perspective on the trans-Tasman bubble.

In July the Government paused quarantine-free travel between the nations after 95 days as Australia’s Covid-19 outbreak worsened.

This week, it downplayed any chance the bubble could reopen soon, with Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins saying it would be “unrealistic to expect that there’ll be speedy decisions in the next few weeks”.

The first trans-Tasman bubble flight from Australia to Wellington lands in April this year.

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The first trans-Tasman bubble flight from Australia to Wellington lands in April this year.

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The bubble saw 154,000 people travel from Australia to New Zealand, according to Stats NZ.

Professor Shaun Hendy, a Covid-19 modeller at Te Pūnaha Matatini, said with uncontrolled outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria, there was still a high risk to resuming quarantine-free travel.

“That free flow probably isn’t coming back again,” he said.

Professor Shaun Hendy says the “free flow” of the first trans-Tasman bubble probably isn’t coming back in the foreseeable future.

Elise Manahan/Supplied

Professor Shaun Hendy says the “free flow” of the first trans-Tasman bubble probably isn’t coming back in the foreseeable future.

Hendy suggested the possibility of quarantine-free travel with states such as Tasmania or Western Australia, but said that would require strict border controls within Australia.

He thought it was most likely that travel between the countries would resume in early 2022, towards the end of New Zealand’s vaccine roll-out.

Even then, requirements could include a vaccine passport, a pre-departure test and possibly a short stint in either managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) or self-isolation upon arrival, Hendy said.

The popped bubble has left some Kiwis pessimistic of getting back to New Zealand soon, unless they are prepared to chase a spot in the competitive MIQ system.

Kiwi Mark Butterfield and his wife Ali, who live in New South Wales, are desperate to bring their sons Archer, 7, and Finley, 5 to visit family in Christchurch, including grandparents they have not seen for more than two years.

Their plans to return this winter fell apart when the bubble snapped shut.

“We are not optimistic,” Ali Butterfield said. “We’ve pretty much given up on coming home for Christmas.

“Every time we had hopes of getting across, they were shattered. Whenever we’ve talked to the kids about coming to New Zealand, they get so excited, then it doesn’t happen and they get upset.”

New South Wales-based Mark and Ali Butterfield with their two boys, Archer, 7, left, and Finley, 5.

BEC BOND/Supplied

New South Wales-based Mark and Ali Butterfield with their two boys, Archer, 7, left, and Finley, 5.

Professor Nancy Baxter, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, said a full travel bubble would only be possible if both countries were vaccinated and accepting of Covid-19 in the community.

“It’s hard to estimate, but perhaps by the beginning of 2022 travel will be more normalised,” Baxter said.

She said if New Zealand’s low Covid rate continued, testing and a shorter quarantine period for travellers from Australian regions with high Covid levels was likely.

“I am not sure what the vaccination percentage will be for New Zealand to consider opening, but there is a lot to lose if they open too soon,” she said.

Bhrett Brockley, right, greets Alice Ingram on the second day of the quarantine-free trans-Tasman bubble back in April this year.

Ross Giblin/Stuff

Bhrett Brockley, right, greets Alice Ingram on the second day of the quarantine-free trans-Tasman bubble back in April this year.

Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA), said each month of closed borders was costing New Zealand $1.5 billion.

“In dollar terms it is huge. But it’s very clear how damaging it is to individual business owners. It’s enormous. We are already seeing the impact on communities, especially in some South Island regions.”

Roberts said until borders reopen, domestic tourism was helping plug some gaps, but much of the industry would not survive long without the international dollar.

In the year before the pandemic, a total of 1.5 million people living in Australia crossed the Tasman to visit, spending an estimated $2.7b while in New Zealand. The biggest group was those seeing friends and family, followed by holiday-makers and then work travellers.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts says it's hard to imagine the bubble reinflating.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts says it’s hard to imagine the bubble reinflating.

Roberts estimates that during the bubble, Australian travellers spent $10m each week in New Zealand.

“Right now it’s hard to imagine the bubble reinflating, it’s such a changeable situation,” he said.

“But there’s a possibility of getting that market again, perhaps in the summer, if it can be done within New Zealand’s requirements.”

Roberts said New Zealand could look at how other countries in the Northern Hemisphere are already opening up.

“At some point New Zealand borders will reopen, and they will almost certainly be on the basis that people have been fully vaccinated.

“In Australia, they’re talking about opening up to some international travel in November. That may be hard to understand from our view, but they are determined to get vaccinated and reopen as early as possible.

“That’s the way the world is going.”

The latest announcement from Qantas suggests the Australian airline is optimistic about trans-Tasman travel resuming this summer.

“Flights between Australia and New Zealand are on sale for travel from mid-December 2021, assuming some or all borders between the two countries will reopen,” the airline said in a statement.

Qantas clarified that its restart plans would be adjusted “if assumptions change or dates move”.

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