New Zealand’s first travel bubble could be on its way after the Cook Islands’ deputy prime minister said his country was ready to welcome tourist flights as early as next week.
The Cook Islands is a self-governing archipelago in the Pacific, in “free association” with New Zealand.
It has recorded no cases of coronavirus, while New Zealand has in effect eliminated the disease; having recorded no community spread for more than 70 days, meaning any active cases have been limited to arrivals in quarantine.
The Cook Islands is a favourite holiday destination for New Zealanders, and more than 80,000 Cook Islanders live permanently in New Zealand.
Mark Brown, the deputy prime minister of the Cook Islands, told the AM Show that talks between the two countries to open a quarantine-free travel bubble were in the final stages, and flights could begin as early as next week.
Jacinda Ardern and Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna spoke on the phone on Monday night, Brown said, and his country was desperate for tourists to return. Tourism is the main driver of the economy.
“We are Covid-19 free … New Zealand is in level 1 with no community transmission. So we are quite happy to see the establishment of a new travel bridge,” Brown said, saying his country was also in advanced talks with Air New Zealand.
Dedicated “travel gates” between the Cook Islands and Auckland airport would be established, Brown said, and New Zealand citizens who had been in the country for 30 days or more would be eligible to visit the Cooks.
“We’ve been quite persistent … by necessity for us,” Brown said. “Tourism is a huge part of our economy – up to 70% – we’ve got 45% of our workforce that is on the wage subsidy with no other support which is going to end by September.”
The Pacific region has had very low numbers of Covid-19 infections – a little over 300 cases to date – due to its geographic isolation and strict enforcement of border closures.
But in a part of the world that is financially dependent on tourism and that imports much of its food, fuel and other vital supplies, travel lockdowns have hit Pacific economies especially hard.
Fiji Airways has laid off 775 employees – more than half its workforce – and in Vanuatu, 70% of tourism workers have lost their jobs. A recent survey of Cook Islands businesses forecast a 90% drop in revenue from the economic impact of coronavirus travel restrictions.
In a statement,Air New Zealand said: “Discussions between the New Zealand and Cook Island governments on establishing a travel bubble have been going well.”
A Trans-Tasman bubble with Australia has been the most hotly anticipated for Kiwis, but since cases have begun to climb in Victoria and New South Wales, both Ardern and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison have poured cold water on it being up and running “any time soon”.
The Cook Islands bubble may also be further off than Brown has suggested, with Ardern saying in a statement that her priority remained the safety of Kiwis, and keeping the Pacific protected.
“The prime minister spoke to the Cook Islands prime minister yesterday to convey that she has asked officials to work on timelines for reopening with realm countries,” a spokesman for Ardern said. “There are no set dates yet, and any speculation at this stage would be very premature …No one wishes to be responsible for Covid entering into the Pacific.”
The secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor,said in May that any reopening would “take time” and that a government’s priority must be “that people stay healthy”. “We just don’t have strong health systems, health services and health infrastructure,” she said.
Travel is beginning to resume across the Pacific, but so far has largely been limited to the repatriation of citizens or travel between communities with existing close ties.