New Zealand travel bubble: Tourism boost as flights, hotel bookings surge ahead of border opening

We always knew the Kiwis loved us, deep down. But rarely will one corner of New Zealand ever be quite as relieved to welcome Australians as Queenstown where, within 90 minutes of the full trans-Tasman bubble announcement, the phones at The Rees Hotel were crackling with Australian drawls.

Since April 6, the luxury resort-style hotel beside mountain-ringed Lake Wakatipu has taken more than 100 nights of bookings from Australia, traditionally the hotel's biggest market, and it shows no signs of slowing.

Such interest is also reflected in traffic on the flight booking site skyscanner.com.au, which reports visits "spiked" almost 70 per cent at the time of the announcement. And the bubble bliss-out doesn't stop there.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirms that more Australians have been applying for passports since the announcement of quarantine-free travel arrangements with New Zealand. 

With passports being practically unusable for most people over the past year, DFAT reminds Australians planning to travel to New Zealand to check if theirs is still current before they book.

For Mark Rose, chief executive of The Rees, the return of Australians to Queenstown, one of the worst affected of New Zealand's international tourist drawcards during the pandemic, is a big relief.

"The opening of a travel bubble with Australia is awesome news for both countries and especially Queenstown where we have welcomed Australians on direct flights since 2005," he says.

"It has been a tough year for many tourism towns in New Zealand, including Queenstown where we have always relied heavily on international tourists, especially Australians."

Despite the promising start, Mr Rose says the real effect of the bubble, should it inflate without incident, will be felt in Queenstown from mid-June. That's when the winter school holidays begin with the loftier amd longer South Island ski runs presenting an irresistible attraction for Australian skiers.

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In inner-city Auckland, Andy Davies, owner of The Convent, a 22-room boutique hotel, hasn't welcomed any overseas tourists since the converted nunnery opened last November. But it will do so from Monday when the first Australians check-in. (The first scheduled bubble flight to New Zealand is Jetstar JQ201, departing at 6.15am from Sydney.)

"Tourism is huge for us as a country," he says. "Since the bubble was announced we're sitting at 100 per cent occupancy. It's definitely great for Auckland but my first thought when the news about the bubble came through was, "right, we've got to go to Sydney."

A spokesperson for Skyscanner says that, with data from the site indicating an average of 1.6 passengers per booking, it expects that friends and families will be looking forward to long overdue reunions with most reservations into the four entry points - Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown - at this stage, being for individuals and groups of two partners or friends.

To mark the arrival of the first quarantine-free bubble flight from Australia to the South Island - Qantas QF121 from Sydney at 2.30 pm - Destination Queenstown, the local tourism organisation, plans to provide a special Kiwi welcome for passengers with the chance to win prizes.

Initially, Queenstown Airport is expecting about 20 international flight arrivals per week from Australia with direct scheduled services operated by Air New Zealand and Qantas between Queenstown and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

On the North Island in Wellington, Anna Calver, general manager of the city's WellingtonNZ tourism body, says the national capital's main airline connectivity is with Australia and Australians were by far the biggest international visitor market before the pandemic.

"We're expecting the first wave of travellers to be Kiwis and Australians visiting friends and family," she says, "but we're also seeing a decent amount of business travel with many local hotels reporting plenty of mid-week bookings from Australia."

"While Australia is Wellington's largest visitor market, with around 250,000 Australians visiting the region annually pre-COVID, we know a lot of Aussies have never visited what's been called the world's coolest little capital."

See also: 'Unintended consequence': Travel bubble leaves Kiwis stuck overseas

See also: Five lessons you need to learn about New Zealand

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