New Zealand has taken another baby step towards re-opening to the world, with PM Jacinda Ardern announcing quarantine-free travel to the Cook Islands is likely “this year”.
Like Australia, NZ is quarantining all international arrivals for a fortnight in an attempt to beat back COVID-19.
The Cook Islands has not had any cases of the deadly virus during the pandemic, and New Zealand has eliminated local transmission.
Ms Ardern said NZ officials will head to the Cook Islands, and vice versa, “within the next 10 days” to verify travel procedures and clear a path.
“We haven’t put a timeframe around the reopening at this stage, though our expectation is that it would be in place before the end of the year,” Ms Ardern said.
The postcard-perfect Cook Islands is a former NZ colony that still has close ties with Wellington.
Local leaders are eager to see the return of regular travel, given the economy’s reliance on tourism, and Kiwis have signalled their intent to holiday there when they are allowed.
However, Ms Ardern has consistently signalled her government’s intent to minimise the risks of spreading the deadly virus.
She has placed public health considerations above economic concerns through the pandemic, and said she had no desire to put NZ’s “hard-won gains” at risk by re-opening with countries ahead of time.
“This is not a simple exercise. This is one where we are exercising that caution,” she said.
“The last thing anyone wants us to reopen travel only to have it closed down because it hasn’t been done properly.
“I feel a duty of responsibility on both sides to make sure whatever we do, that we make sure it lasts and it’s safe.”
Ms Ardern also faces criticism for not moving faster to develop bubbles with other nations.
Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama, who on Sunday congratulated NZ for joining Fiji as countries to enjoy 100 days without community transmission, has called for a “Bula Bubble” but Ms Ardern said it wasn’t a priority. Mr Bainimarama also wanted to explore options for Australians, another important source of tourism cash, to travel to Fiji.
“At this stage we are entirely focused on Realm countries. That includes the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau, being a different set of circumstance where the only access route is via Samoa,” she said.
New Zealand had also been exploring its options for opening travel to Australia. But last week Ms Ardern said the deadly coronavirus outbreak sweeping Victoria had killed any idea of a trans-Tasman bubble until 2021.
She remained downbeat about the possibilities on Monday.
“We are still undertaking the work, the foundational work for the trans-Tasman travel arrangements but obviously that is going to be some time off,” she said.
As part of the agreement, the Cook Islands will not be able to provide quarantine-free travel to countries where COVID-19 remains in the community.