Australia hasn't felt so isolated from the rest of the world since the jet airliner was invented 70 years ago. But at least we have one thing in our favour: we're right next door to paradise. And while Australia has been congratulating itself for its management of COVID-19, rightly so to a large degree, island nations in the South Pacific have even better pandemic records.
Some neighbouring nations, such as the Cook Islands and Niue, have recorded zero COVID-19 cases while like Samoa, Vanuatu and the Solomons have recorded barely a handful, all in quarantine. Aside from this collective success, they all share in common an enormous dependence on tourism from big brothers Australia and New Zealand.
"Over 70 per cent of our GDP comes from tourism, and 85 per cent of our visitors are from Australia or New Zealand," says Graeme West, chief executive of Cook Islands Tourism. "Places like the Cook Islands are still relatively undiscovered by Australians, they're safe, comfortable and relaxed, there's a lot of cultural immersion."
After the recent announcement by Brendan Murphy, the federal government's health department secretary, that much if any overseas travel would be unlikely in 2021, Gladys Berejiklian, NSW premier and open borders advocate, encouraged a travel bubble be established to allow us to at least travel to our near neighbours.
"There's no reason why travel bubbles couldn't be opened between the Pacific and New Zealand well within 12 months," she said. It's a stance that Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum industry lobby group, actively supports.
"There's enormous affection for that part of the world from Australians," she says. "When you look at the records of all Pacific nations, they've done really well at containing the virus. And there's been a serious impact on Australians' wish to take a chance on our own state borders staying open."
But, as prime minister Scott Morrison has diplomatically pointed out, challenges exist as the health systems in Pacific island nations are "obviously different" to that of Australia, as are their testing regimes. However, both Australia and New Zealand have pledged to fund the cost of COVID-19 vaccines in the Pacific.
Richard Skewes, director of Precise Travel Marketing and a veteran of South Pacific tourism, agrees that obstacles exist. But he also believes that travel bubbles with island nations could succeed. There's the potential, at least initially, that visitors from Australia may be confined to resorts or designated islands, to protect the local population.
But there's hope: the Cook Islands and New Zealand governments announced their own travel bubble in late January though it's yet to fully inflate. Whatever the case, as the Australian authorities look to destinations to reintroduce quarantine-free overseas travel for Australians there's unquestionably no safer region, even surpassing New Zealand, than the South Pacific.
Don't start packing your snorkels and flippers quite yet, but there's no doubt that there's a whole world of wonder waiting for us with relatively short and jet lag flights from Australia's east coast . Here's Traveller's special guide to get you dreaming and ready to go. And to keep, for when the time arrives for us to reconnect with paradise.
Castway Resort, Fiji.
WHY GO Australia's most popular South Pacific destination, there's actually 333 islands here. Renowned for its friendly locals and its clear blue water, Fiji is, or was, the favourite holiday spot for everyone from the planet's biggest movie stars to young Aussies on their first overseas holiday.
NEED TO KNOW Fiji has zero active cases but has had 55 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths – though these all occurred at quarantine facilities. There's been no community transmission and all borders are closed to tourists, while returning citizens must quarantine for 14 days.
SEE + DO Stay in one of 20 islands of the Mamanucas, a few minutes by boat from main island, Viti Levu, home to some of Fiji's best family resorts such as Castaway, surf some of the world's best waves off reefs by the Mamanucas, take a boat to the Yasawas, open to land-based tourism since 1987, hike the national parks and discover waterfalls on Fiji's Garden Isle, Taveuni, 75 minutes flight from Nadi. See castawayfiji.com; namotuislandfiji.com
DON'T MISS It's not only the water in Fiji you'll love, take a tour into the highlands of main island, Viti Levu, where locals still live as they always have. See sigatokariver.com
ESSENTIALS Fly to Fiji from Sydney or Melbourne in four-and-a-half hours with Virgin Australia, Fiji Airways, AirNZ or Qantas. See fiji.travel
WHY GO Fifteen islands with 15,000 inhabitants spread across an ocean the size of Western Europe, need we say more? While there's oodles of Robinson Crusoe opportunities, you'll find some of the South Pacific's liveliest bars and restaurants in the capital, Rarotonga, while Aitutaki's lagoon is matched only by that of Bora Bora.
NEED TO KNOW The Cook Islands are one of the few nations on Earth to have had no COVID-19 cases. The country's been closed to all tourists since March, though a travel bubble for Cook Islanders to travel quarantine-free to NZ started on January 21. The bubble was to progress to a two-way arrangement by the end of the first quarter of 2021. The next step is to look at a possible bubble with Australia.
SEE + DO Take a cruise with ukulele sing-alongs on Aitutaki lagoon, stopping at uninhabited islands (thevakacruise.com), sample some of the South Pacific's best diving on Rarotonga (diverarotonga.com), try local delicacy ika mati (fish cooked in lime juice and marinated in coconut milk) at Tamarind House in a 140-year-old historic home, have lunch as whales breach at Trader Jacks, the South Pacific's most iconic watering hole. See traderjackscookislands.com; tamarindrarotonga.com
DON'T MISS While the beaches and lagoons bedazzle, be sure to sample Rarotonga's sunset bars (The Waterline, Shipwreck Hut at The Aroa Inn and Wilsons Bar at Castaways) to find the South Pacific's quirkiest mix of characters, live music and green flashes.
ESSENTIALS Fly direct from Sydney in five-and-a-half hours. See cookislands.travel
To Sua Ocean Trench. Photo: iStock
WHY GO The South Pacific's most under-rated destination, this is Polynesia at its most stripped back – locals live in villages in houses with no walls, ruled by chiefs. Fringed by lagoons, you'll find some of the South Pacific's best waterfalls in a mountainous hinterland. Stay on the beach in a variety of resorts.
NEED TO KNOW Samoa recorded its first COVID-19 case with the arrival of a Samoan from Melbourne into quarantine. But there's been no community transmission. Samoa has banned all tourists since March..
SEE + DO Stay in a fale (hut) and sample a beach bar at Lalomanu, rated in the top 10 beaches on Earth by Lonely Planet, ride the South Pacific's least crowded waves at a surf camp for the whole family (salanisurf.com), explore Samoa's Big Island, Savaii, an hour away by ferry: there's few tourists, but there's loads of natural attractions (just pay the locals a few dollars to show you).
DON'T MISS A swim at To-Sua Ocean Trench, (to-suaoceantrench.com), climb 30 metres down a ladder into a volcanic swimming hole surrounded by forest, connected to the ocean by underwater caves.
ESSENTIALS Fly direct from Sydney and Melbourne in six hours. See samoa.travel
Tanna's Blue Cave. Photo: Joel Johnsson
WHY GO There's much more beyond the capital, Port Vila. Spread across 83 islands where locals speak 120 languages, sit on the edge of exploding volcanoes, dive the world's best wreck site, or spend idle time on deserted beaches at some of the Pacific's most under-rated resorts.
NEED TO KNOW Vanuatu was one of a handful of countries on Earth to register no COVID-19 cases until November when a repatriated citizen from the US tested positive while in quarantine. Tourists have been banned from the country, while the mandatory quarantine period for returning locals has been extended to 28 days.
SEE + DO
Fly south to Tanna and stand on the rim of the world's most accessible live volcano (Yasur) at sunset. Fly an hour north to Espiritu Santo and dive the world's best wreck site, the SS Coolidge (coralquays.com), or drive 45 minutes north from Port Vila to stay at Vanuatu's best luxury resort and access islands you can have for yourselves. See thehavannah.com
DON'T MISS Tanna is best known for its volcano, but stay far away from travellers on the island's lesser-known west coast, and swim in its Blue Cave. See whitegrasstanna.com
ESSENTIALS Fly to Vanuatu from Melbourne or Sydney in three-and-a-half hours. See vanuatu.travel
Barely two-and-a-half hours from our east coast, New Cal slips under our collective travel radars. Yet it's home to the world's largest lagoon, perfect for snorkelling, yachting and diving. Visit archipelagoes of islands or stay in Noumea, the Pacific's Francophile capital.
NEED TO KNOW
New Caledonia has conducted over 20,00 tests since March, for a total of 44 positive cases, all in overseas travellers. There's been no community transmission, there's no current cases and borders are still shut with a mandatory quarantine. All flights have been suspended until July 31. Vaccinations began in mid-January.
SEE + DO
Eat French and shop Parisian at gourmet restaurants and fashion boutiques in Noumea, hire a yacht to sail the World Heritage-listed New Caledonia Lagoon, at 24,000 square metres, it's one of the South Pacific's best locations for visibility, or take off to the Loyalty Islands, home to beaches, underwater caves and fresh seafood restaurants on the sand. See dreamyachtcharter.com/destination; allwaysdive.com.au
Check out Amedee Lighthouse just beyond Noumea, the tallest metallic lighthouse on Earth. It's surrounded by a marine reserve with clear waters where turtles reside. See amedeeisland.com
Fly to New Caledonia from Sydney or Melbourne in less than three hours. See newcaledonia.travel
WHY GO Like travelling the Pacific a century ago, the Solomons remain untouched. Adventurers, pack your bags: thousands of Second World War wrecks lie in jungles and lagoons, while there's waves to be surfed, volcanoes to be hiked and some of the planet's best diving and snorkelling.
NEED TO KNOW The Solomons suspended all flights arriving into Honiara in March. Their first COVID-19 case was in October, but occurred in quarantine with a student repatriated from the Philippines. There's no active cases or community transmission.
SEE AND DO Fly to Gizo, capital of the Western Province where you'll have the best choice of eco-resorts, dive operators and surf camps, sleep on the private island where Prince George was (allegedly) conceived during Prince William's tour (tavanipupu.com), there's no better destination for war tourists with Second World War relics across its 992 islands. In Honiara check out the Guadalcanal American Memorial.
DON'T MISS Swim with endangered turtles (like leatherbacks) in one of the world's largest lagoons, Marovo Lagoon, in the Western Province, staying in eco-resorts on the water. See uepi.com
ESSENTIALS Fly to the Solomons from Sydney or Melbourne in four hours. Take malaria medication. See visitsolomons.com.sb
IDYLL THOUGHTS: THE TWO PACIFIC ISLANDS WE CAN VISIT
Lord Howe Island. Photo: Destination NSW
Often overlooked by mainlanders, Lord Howe Island has become the hippest overseas destination which isn't technically overseas at all (although it's 600 kilometres east of Australia, it's part of NSW).
Closed to all visitors for six months till October last year, it's now fully booked or near full capacity for the next four months, and will likely open to tourists during winter when it traditionally shuts. Two thirds of the island is covered in forest and no more than 400 tourists are allowed on the island, with only 350 locals to share it with.
Lord Howe Island is one of four island groups on the planet to earn a World Heritage listing. It has the world's southernmost coral reef and a six-kilometre-long coral reef runs along its western side to form a lagoon, lending it an altogether South Seas appearance.
Elsewhere, take all the isolation by sea the Pacific offers, then mix in an eclectic bunch of locals, descendants of history's most infamous mutineers (the Pitcairn mutineers who commandeered Captain Bligh's ship) and you have Norfolk Island, the other Pacific island you can travel to right now.
Located two-and-a-half hours north-east of Sydney, the island was isolated entirely for four months last year. It opened again to mainland Australians in July, and all Australians are free to enter without quarantining provided they didn't come from a COVID-19 hot-spot and they complete a travel pass prior to entry.
Once known as a spot for newly-weds (or the nearly dead), Norfolk Island's now full of adventure activities, rustic cafes and restaurants… even a winery. The fishing's the best on Earth (there's no commercial fishing), there's Norfolk's version of the 12 Apostles, and there's surf, diving and mountain-biking.
NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH: WHEN CAN WE GO TO NEW ZEALAND?
There were high hopes that by the end of last year that by March this year we'd be able to travel to New Zealand in a trans-Tasman bubble. Then Sydney's Northern Beaches COVID-19 outbreak occurred in mid-December and our travel plans were dashed.
Then in January, New Zealand's first community transmission of COVID-19 in months also caused a set-back, with New Zealanders no longer able to enter Australia without quarantining (anyone who arrived in Australia on or since January 14 must isolate and be tested).
So where are we at?
"There are several health and border requirements, including 28 days of zero community transmission in both New Zealand and Australia, that need to eventuate before Australians can travel across the ditch," says Andrew Waddel, Tourism New Zealand's general manager, Australia.
"With this in mind, locally transmitted cases in Australia or New Zealand pose a potential delay to trans-Tasman travel eventuating sooner. But we're optimistic we'll be able to see our Australian neighbours this year."
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Arden has said that the setback was disappointing, but that New Zealand was still "looking to pursue it" (a trans-Tasman travel bubble).
"While it does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level, we haven't ruled out the possibility of a state-by-state," she says.
One thing you can be sure of: New Zealand wants this as much as we do. There's an estimated $12.9 billion expected gap from the loss of international visitors, and guess who's the number one market for expenditure? See newzealand.com