By Neil Sands
New Zealand will scrap its strict border controls early because the country’s world-leading pandemic response has made it “a safe place to visit”, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Wednesday.
“We’re ready to welcome the world back,” Ardern told reporters.
“I’m proud that New Zealand is a country able at this moment in time to provide a safe place for our tourists to return to.”
Ardern said that vaccinated Australians could visit without undergoing quarantine or self-isolation from April, rather than the July date originally planned.
Travellers from nations that have visa-free arrangements with New Zealand – including major markets in the Northern Hemisphere, Japan, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan — will be allowed to do the same from May 1.
Ardern described the change as a major boost for New Zealand’s struggling tourism industry.
“We are ready to safely move into a new chapter of our management of the pandemic, this change brings with it huge economic opportunities,” she said.
New Zealand welcomed 3.9 million international arrivals in 2019 but borders closed in March 2020 as Covid-19 swept the world.
Tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export earner before the pandemic, generating more than NZ$16 billion ($10.9 billion) annually, with 40 percent of holidaymakers coming from Australia.
‘Clean, green and safe’
For much of the pandemic, all international arrivals had to undergo two weeks of quarantine in government-run hotel facilities patrolled by the military.
The controls helped keep the virus out of the community for extended periods but New Zealand is currently experiencing a wave of Omicron-variant infections, with more than 21,000 new cases recorded on Tuesday.
However, the population is highly vaccinated, with more than 95 percent double jabbed and has recorded just 117 coronavirus-related deaths in a population of five million.
Ardern said New Zealand had the lowest death rate in the developed world and its pandemic response would make it attractive to tourists in a competitive international market.
“We are a safe place to visit and New Zealand will be ready with open arms,” she said.
“We will be a sought-after market, we’re now known globally as not just being clean and green, but also being safe.”
Air New Zealand welcomed the change, saying it was ready to ramp up services to meet demand.
“It’s no secret the past two years have been extremely turbulent for people — there’s a real buzz today,” airline chief executive Greg Foran said.
“New Zealand holds a special place in many people’s hearts, whether they’re a Kiwi or visitor, touching down on New Zealand soil will be a moment to remember.”
The announcement did not cover arrivals from countries such as China and India, where visas are required to visit New Zealand, who must currently self isolate for 10 days upon arrival.
The requirement is not due to be dropped until October but Ardern said that date was also likely to be moved forward.