Trans-Tasman bubble: When and how will we be able to holiday in NZ?

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison are working on a
NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison are working on a "Trans-Tasman bubble". Picture: Shutterstock

There's a new phrase buzzing back and forth: a "trans-Tasman bubble" is on the horizon.

With little prospect of widespread international travel resuming soon, the initial plan - or hope - of Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern is for people in Australia and New Zealand to travel to each other's country.

The New Zealand Prime Minister joined the Australian Prime Minister and his cabinet meeting by video link from Wellington.

After the meeting, she and Mr Morrison issued a joint statement: "A trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone would be mutually beneficial, assisting our trade and economic recovery, helping kick-start the tourism and transport sectors, enhancing sporting contacts, and reuniting families and friends."

When is it going to happen?

Not immediately. The prime ministers' statement said "as soon as it is safe to do so".

So some conditions would have to be met first, particularly that both countries have to be free of COVID-19.

While the virus is out there, neither would want to risk rekindling the problem after such a mighty effort to contain it.

There are still restrictions on travel between states and territories in Australia.

Mr Morrison said a travel agreement with New Zealand would only be introduced when Australians could "travel from Melbourne to Cairns".

He said it was not "something about to happen next week."

How near are we to being clear of COVID-19?

New Zealand seems to be closer to containment than Australia. It has just announced a second day in a row with no new cases - but that's only for the first time in nearly two months. Two free days does not a trend make.

In Australia, cases continue to emerge, the latest batch among people at a meat-processing plant in Victoria.

Tracking, tracing and treating new patients would help. The more the authorities can be sure that travellers aren't infected, the more quickly restraints on travel will be lifted.

All this means that free movement across the Tasman is unlikely to happen within the next few weeks, and probably not for some months.

Would we have to go into quarantine after travelling?

The New Zealand Prime Minister made it clear that quarantine was not part of the plan.

At the moment, both countries' borders are closed to all except returning residents who must be isolated for 14 days when they return.

"People wouldn't travel if they had to stay on either side in quarantine for a two-week period and have to do the same when you return," Ms Ardern said.

Would passengers need their health checked before boarding?

Probably - but more as a measure of reassurance than a sure-fire safety check.

We are a long way from "immunity passports" where people can be certified as free of the virus. Firstly, the testing would need to be pretty well universal and, secondly, there would need to be a guarantee that a tested person didn't become infected after the test.

Airports are already installing safety checks. Canberra has a camera which detects body heat, a symptom of fever. This is partly to reassure passengers that their health is being taken seriously and measures are in place.

Why would a New Zealand- Australia travel zone be a benefit?

Firstly, a holiday abroad will be welcome for those seeking relief from the current situation.

But, secondly, the more we can get our economies going again, the less the longer term economic damage.

About 1.3 million Kiwis a year come to Australia in normal times. We need their dollars and they need ours.

New Zealand is just behind China as the biggest source of tourists so opening travel would be significant economically.

And Chinese tourists aren't returning soon.

The dream - or less nightmarish - scenario is where the economy takes the severe hit it is obviously going to but rebounds quickly - a v-shaped downturn rather than a long and lingering u-shaped one.

According to the International Monetary Fund, "As a result of the pandemic, the global economy is projected to contract sharply by -3 percent in 2020, much worse than during the 2008-09 financial crisis."

This means a crash in demand for Australian and New Zealand exports. If the two countries can make the best of a bad job by trading and growing their economies out of the trough together, the crash may be softened.

Industries are currently staring at an abyss. Bankruptcy faces airlines, hotels and other tourism facilities.

If some of the demand for their services can be redirected to a market just over the water, those threatened businesses and their employees might have some hope.

Could the travel zone be expanded?

As more and more countries get a clean bill of health, they could be included but we are a long, long way from that. In the meantime, it will be a step-by-step approach.

Some of the Pacific Islands have no cases of COVID-19 but they are reluctant to open their borders to Australians.

Tonga, for example, has had no cases but the head of its health ministry said, "We have to make sure that no coronavirus will be transferred."

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Are there non-economic benefits to trans-Tasman travel?

Two academics, one from New Zealand and the other from Australia, think it makes environmental sense.

"Trans-Tasman travel is the least carbon emitting of our international markets, because it does not rely on long-haul flights," said Freya Higgins-Desbiolles who lectures in tourism at the University of South Australia and James Higham, Professor of Tourism at the University of Otago.

On top of that, Australians who travel to New Zealand and Kiwis who travel here tend to stay in regional destinations and not trek around the country burning up fuel.

There are benefits in lots of ways - but don't book your ticket quite yet.

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This story When and how will we be able to holiday in NZ? first appeared on The Canberra Times.