Key individuals behind the sequel to Hollywood blockbuster Avatar are among hundreds of foreigners quietly let into New Zealand under little-known exemptions to its closed border regime.
New Zealand closed its borders in March to deal with COVID-19, allowing only Kiwis and returning residents to return.
Jacinda Ardern’s government has since tweaked its regulations to allow humanitarian arrivals and essential workers in, including in the health sectors.
But only on Tuesday, under questioning, was it revealed Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford has also been admitting high-value foreigners.
“I’ve signed off on a couple of hundred over the past month,” he told AAP.
Mr Twyford was granted powers by Cabinet on April 21 to allow entry to individuals from the James Cameron-directed blockbuster, as well as key personnel to key infrastructure projects.
“That’s kind of a no-brainer because if infrastructure providers aren’t able to repair equipment or do a particular bit of work it can mean infrastructure doesn’t get built or it doesn’t get repaired,” he said.
“There’s a set of criteria that we’ve been using to make the decisions.
“The people have to have some skill or expertise or talent that is critical to their project that can’t be met by someone in New Zealand.
“It has to be time-critical.
“And the third thing is that it has to have significant economic value, some wider benefit to the economy, to supply chains, employment, rather than just being a problem for that particular industry.”
Mr Twyford declined to give further specificity around individuals or projects, citing confidentiality.
Avatar II producer Jon Landau and a “small crew” will land in Wellington this week and begin quarantine for the movie, due to be released in December 2021.
“We’re bringing back far fewer people than we had last year when we were filming. We’re bringing really those who are essential to our filming needs and we’ll be working with the same crew that we had in New Zealand,” Mr Landau told Radio NZ.
The government’s secrecy around the border exemption is surprising given they have run near-daily press briefings since the arrival of the pandemic in March.
Then, Ms Ardern trumpeted the controls as one of “widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world”.
There is no doubt they have helped New Zealand contain the virus to the point of near elimination.
But at times, the government has been criticised for being too tough.
Earlier this month, there was outrage as the government had been refusing to grant compassionate exemptions for Kiwis who were rushing home to see loved ones on their death beds.
Ms Ardern said the exemptions regime was being reviewed.
“There are some individuals who are in some really sticky situations,” she said.
“I do want to make sure that we address that issue before we see an opening up of the exemptions regime, because I do think that will raise equity issues or issues of fairness.”
Health officials have found just one new case of COVID-19 in the past nine days.