New Zealand travel bubble: International travel feels like a privilege again

On Monday night, Auckland's 328-metre Sky Tower, designed to be seen from all parts of this sailing-mad harbour city, now the almost permanent home of the Auld Mug, was shimmering a slightly sickly green and gold.

It was a tribute to the return of Australians to New Zealand - human cash-flow in a tourism dependent nation - after more than a year's absence. It was a characteristically kind Kiwi thought (though try reciprocating that with the New Zealand national colours on an Australian tower by night).

The Kiwis are a kind people, aside from the occasional trans-Tasman bilateral diplomatic tension and the more frequent, sometimes snarky, international sporting rivalries.

On television in Australia, the Kiwi PM, Jacinda Ardern, beaming as brightly as the Sky Tower does at normal times, was doing her finest to plug brand New Zealand. That's despite her "flyer beware" warning to bubble participants earlier this month.

But if there's been an Aussie invasion in New Zealand this week I didn't notice. As expected, most of the visitors from Australia during the first week of the trans-Tasman bubble appear to have been Kiwi expats reuniting with friends and relatives.

Even for hardened scribes covering the launch of what has become the world's first major quarantine-free travel bridge in the pandemic, the tearfully emotional scenes as passengers poured into the arrival hall to be greeted by long lost loved ones won't easily be forgotten.

It was a reminder, as we continue to struggle with closed borders, that, ultimately, the best travel is always about human connections and not just indulgent holidays. So it was for me, too, in a way, this week in Auckland.

I chose to stay on for three nights after taking the first flight of the full bubble from Australia early on Monday morning to soak up this chance to experience the sheer novelty of overseas travel after the pandemic-induced hiatus.

Sure. It was just New Zealand, our home away from home, not New York. But as is always the case during a visit to this country, where a mate is a bro, corner stores are dairies and thongs are jandals, New Zealand feels simultaneously as familiar as ever and as rather oddly foreign as always.


Wandering the city - one of the most COVID-safe on the planet, despite the airline cleaner scare on the first full day of the bubble - I felt, if not like New Zealand's rarest bird, the fairy tern, then at least a little like a kakapo, another elusive Kiwi avian species.

From hoteliers to waiters and shop assistants to taxi drivers, everywhere I've gone I've been the first Australian the Aucklanders have encountered in more than a year or more (sorry it had to be me, cuzzies, and not Chris Hemsworth).

For a few seconds there, I felt as if the icky though impressive Sky Tower lighting display was staged just for me. Until the middle of the week I was the only Australian staying at my hotel. That's all set to change soon with Kiwi hotels reporting solid bookings with the winter ski season approaching, and that can't come soon enough for many. My taxi driver taking me to the airport for the flight home tells me this is his first trip to the international airport in Auckland in one year and eight days. 

Many of us have been suffering from withdrawal having been denied international holidays for a year. In an affluent, if not entitled, developed nation, one richer than New Zealand, travel had become a right, not a privilege.

In my lower middle-class household when I was growing up, the notion of a holiday overseas was never uttered. The only "overseas" destination my father had visited was Tasmania briefly in his youth.

This week, as short a visit as it may have been, my first overseas trip for more than a year certainly felt more like a complete privilege and any overseas travel, after what we've been through, will remain so for me.

For a while at least, New Zealand is going to be as overseas as it gets for Australians. That's fine by me. And if the bubble proves a genuine success it can't help but instil confidence in our nervous leaders to create more travel bridges with other high-achiever COVID-19 nations.

Frankly, I can't wait to one day soon witness Singapore's famed fountain-like white merlion spurting green and gold water from its mouth (then again, perhaps not).

Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He travelled to Auckland courtesy of Jetstar.

See also: Jacinda Ardern's travel tips: Treat NZ like another Australian state

See also: New flights, new rules: On board the first NZ travel bubble flight