Thousands of tourists and international students arrived in New Zealand from Australia on Wednesday, some to reunite with family and friends, in a further sign of reopening in countries that have maintained some of the world’s strictest coronavirus restrictions.
In the largest influx of new arrivals in many months, at least 4,000 passengers on Air New Zealand flights alone arrived at airports throughout New Zealand, many of them Australians with family living in New Zealand, after the border reopened to Australian citizens and permanent residents arriving from anywhere in the world, as well as up to 5,000 international students.
New Zealand citizens were already able to enter, and the country intends to reopen to travelers from elsewhere in the world in a phased reopening over the coming months.
At Auckland International Airport, Justine Kanapu told the national broadcaster Radio New Zealand that she was waiting to see her mother — who was traveling from the Australian city of Perth — for the first time in almost three years. “We have missed out on a lot: my parents’ 60th birthdays, some funerals, some real special moments and some real sad moments,” she said. “So I can’t wait to see my Mum.”
Almost all flights have been canceled since the closure of a “bubble” across the Tasman Sea ended most travel between the two countries in July. For some families, it was the first opportunity to reunite in years.
At midnight local time, New Zealand also relaxed some additional pandemic restrictions, including abandoning a mask mandate in many settings and encouraging a return to workplaces.
Australia, which has mostly reopened its borders to international travelers, has permitted travel from New Zealand since October. But New Zealand is only now following suit. The change comes after a major outbreak of the Omicron variant, in which the number of reported daily cases and deaths in New Zealand rose to heights far exceeding the country’s previous records.
Despite multiple attempts to establish sustained quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand, a “bubble” between the two countries has been repeatedly halted throughout the pandemic because of outbreaks in both countries. Many people opted not to travel at all to avoid being stranded, leading to months of separation.
Before the pandemic, Auckland International Airport was a major hub, with more than 21 million passengers passing through in the financial year ending in 2019, according to the airport. Since March 2020, its international terminal has been all but deserted.
In preparation for the border reopening, Air New Zealand, New Zealand’s national airline, added an additional 96 flights, for a total of 20,000 seats, between Australia and New Zealand from April until June, said Leanne Geraghty, the airline’s chief customer and sales officer.
Both Australia and New Zealand adopted “zero-Covid” approaches for much of the pandemic, closing their borders in March 2020 with few exceptions and mandating a two-week quarantine in a hotel for returning citizens on arrival. People arriving in New Zealand on Wednesday were required to be vaccinated and were asked only to take a pre-departure coronavirus test, and to test again in the days after their arrival.