Kiwis will be able to visit the Cook Islands without having to quarantine in either country from May 17, with the islands' tourism body hoping the bubble can be extended to Australia in the near future.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the start date for the long-awaited two-way, quarantine-free travel bubble on Monday – two weeks before it is set to inflate.
"The Cook Islands are in a stronger position to prevent, detect and manage any potential COVID-19 outbreak, which means a two-way travel bubble can now proceed," she said.
"A green travel zone between the Cooks and New Zealand will allow families to reconnect, commercial arrangements to resume, and tourism in the Cooks to kick off once again. This will all provide a boost to the Cook Island's economy and help in the country's recovery from the impacts of COVID-19."
However, if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Cooks, Kiwis will be more likely to have to return to New Zealand straight away.
"As in the case with Australia, the bubble comes with a flyer beware caveat. If there is an outbreak in New Zealand, flights are likely to be paused. In addition to that, our plan if there is an outbreak in the Cooks is more explicit."
Arden said the government would take a "highly precautionary approach" to any outbreak in the Cooks.
"So rather than require everyone to shelter in place as we would in Australia, we would be more likely to get our people home. We view this as necessary to reduce pressure on the Cook Islands and minimise further spread of the virus.
Australians have been able to travel freely to New Zealand since April 18. A loophole in the tran-Tasman travel bubble means Australians who travel to New Zealand will not be stopped from continuing on to a third country.
But Australians shouldn't pack their bags for the Cook Islands just yet. Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt amended the Biosecurity Act to try and close the loophole, announcing large fines for Australians who could not justify their travel on compassionate or urgent medical grounds upon their return home.
However, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation for Australasia general manager Graeme West is hopeful that a travel bubble between Australia and the Cook Islands will happen soon.
"Getting the New Zealand/Cook Islands bubble is the first step in our re-opening, but as you will hope, we are very keen to see that extended to our Australian neighbours as soon as it is possible," he said.
Air New Zealand is set to fly to the Rarotonga two to three times a week from May 17 on Boeing 787-9 aircraft. From June 7 to 27, the airline will fly to the Cooks three to four times a week.
To be eligible to travel, customers will need to have been in New Zealand for at least 14 days. Screening questions will be asked at check-in and passengers will be required to wear face masks on board.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran predicted the Cook Islands will be popular with Kiwis looking "for a warm break and some R&R".
"We know it's a popular destination because in 2019, of the 446,000 Kiwis who took a trip to the Pacific Islands, almost 110,000 headed to Rarotonga," he said.
Mr West said Cook Islanders would welcome their first international visitors in more than a year "with open arms and big smiles".
"Kiwis are always welcomed very warmly and I think this will be even more evident as Kiwis return to our tropical paradise. We'll be doing everything possible to ensure people have a fantastic holiday. We're ready to go and to showcase everything that we're renowned for – our warm tropical weather, stunning natural beauty, friendliness and hospitality and our great food."
Kiwis who travel to the Cooks are encouraged to use the country's new contact tracing app, CookSafe+, which is compatible with New Zealand's COVID Tracer app.
"The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation has also produced a Cook Islands Promise, a short list of what is needed to keep locals and visitors safe," West said.
Information on the promise can be found at www.cookislands.travel.
Flight Centre managing director David Coombes predicted most of the agency's bookings for travel to the Cooks would come from holidaymakers.
"Customers are feeling confident in travel to the Cook Islands as the risk is seen as similar to domestic travel in Aotearoa. We have already been taking a number of holiday bookings, and the July school holiday period is selling well."
Last month Ardern and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown confirmed both countries were working towards a two-way quarantine-free travel arrangement by May.
One-way quarantine-free travel from the Cook Islands to New Zealand has been possible since January.
Commencement of the bubble is subject to final checks, which include airport readiness, all policies and frameworks being in place, and final sign-off from Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.
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