Australia travel bubbles with New Zealand and beyond: Zero-risk approach pops bubbles

OPINION

Pfft. That's how easy it is for a bubble to burst. We saw it happen last week when the federal government, in one of its abundance of abundances of cautions, suspended the trans-Tasman partial travel bubble due to a single positive case in New Zealand.

The partially-formed COVID-19 travel bridge between Australia and New Zealand - one of the great hopes of tourism for an industry repeatedly denied any degree of hope - therefore suffered major, possibly irreparable, structural damage.

The bubble, in its present form, allows only for New Zealanders to visit Australia, at their own risk of border closures and lockdowns. Australians, conversely, have been left waiting since last April, when the concept was first proposed (admittedly a little optimistically, as first detailed by this title) for approval to holiday in New Zealand.

Not unlike the serial border shutdowns in Australia, which have grievously undermined confidence in future interstate travel, the temporary trans-Tasman suspension has jeopardised, if not ruined, the one principal chance of overseas travel for Australians before at least 2022.

It coincides with the point at which the beleaguered Australian tourism industry is shouting "brace, brace, brace" with JobKeeper set to be withdrawn by the federal government next month with the abruptness of an airborne jetliner suddenly running out of fuel.

Despite being still barred by the even more timid Kiwi authorities from visiting New Zealand, Australians were actually embroiled in the suspension with tourists on Norfolk Island unable to return to Australia for a time because the remote Australian Pacific territory has been serviced by Air New Zealand.

Air New Zealand suspended its services after Australia decreed quarantine-free flights between New Zealand would stop as the source of the positive case reported across the ditch was investigated.

This meant Air New Zealand crews operating flights between Norfolk Island and the Australian mainland would need to undertake 14 days of managed hotel quarantine or be based in Australia. Qantas was compelled to introduce flights to and from Norfolk as a result.

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Complicated, isn't it? It's also an example of why Australians may hestitate in travelling to New Zealand if they fear that they could be suddenly compelled to quarantine while there, unable to return home, in the event of an outbreak no matter how minor. It doesn't augur well.

Politicians on both sides of the Tasman, newly fearful of the apparently more virulent fresh UK, South African and Brazilian strains of COVID-19 have not only a responsibility to protect public health (and have done a world class job in doing so), but also the economy.

For the sake of both countries' economies, with 20 per cent of New Zealand's economy dependent on international tourism, and the morale of its citizens, governments need to more actively search for ways and means to restore travel between the two neighbours.

However, with Australia seemingly leaving it up to the New Zealanders to decide on when to launch a full travel bridge, a full bubble won't occur if it is based on medical experts' desired zero risk.

Such a risk level may be eventually reduced by the imminent distribution of the much-heralded vaccines, but it's difficult to conceive how an acceptable level of risk will ever be achieved in respect to COVID-19 in order for overseas travel to resume.

And who really knows how long the vaccine roll-out will take and how efficient it will be? Will it also be 2022 before we can even visit New Zealand, let alone any other international travel? Does New Zealand represent our best bet, even in the long-term?

To be fair to the Australasian authorities, travel bubbles have proved a devil to inflate. All have failed, with one of the more glaring misfires being late last year's attempt to form a version between Singapore and Hong Kong.

It failed to launch when Hong Kong, which had been one of the international success stories of COVID-19 containment, suffered an unexpected major outbreak of the virus which led to a lockdown.

However, with the enviable COVID-19 track record of Australia and New Zealand, particularly based on unrivalled contact tracing and the apparent tightening of measures around hotel quarantine (Western Australia's security guard notwithstanding) a full, pragmatic trans-Tasman travel bubble really should be able to be achieved.

But more important than a travel bubble with New Zealand is one with the Pacific, if only from a humanitarian perspective. Island nations such as Fiji are even more reliant than New Zealand on tourism and they are suffering.

The incidence of COVID-19 in much of the Pacific (with the exception of French Polynesia with its direct links to France) has been near non-existent, though, admittedly, the last thing Australia and New Zealand would want to do is introduce the virus into other medically vulnerable countries.

(A partial, and shaky-looking travel bubble, has been recently established between New Zealand and the Cook Islands).

Australians and New Zealanders who visit the Pacific as part of a bubble would not only benefit from a holiday but would contribute to the revival of the badly ailing economies of neighbours.(The Australian and New Zealand governments, perhaps with an already influential China in the Pacific in mind, have each indicated their intention to cover costs of vaccinating the relatively small populations of the region).

No one connected to the tourism industry, or even outside it, considers the restoration of overseas travel a simple task devoid of risk.

But with hundreds of thousands of tourism jobs, and the morale of the nation, at stake it's incumbent on the Australian and New Zealand governments to devise a proper, coherent plan and timeline as to how at least trans-Tasman and Pacific travel bubbles could be achieved, sooner rather than later.

Anthony Dennis is the editor of Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

See also: Unless we sort out borders, Australia will become a hermit nation

See also: Is it OK to start booking interstate holidays again? Five things to know

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