Travel prospects in the South Pacific have improved significantly for Australians following another round of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions for holiday favourites including Vanuatu and Fiji.
Vanuatu has confirmed a July 1 border reopening date for fully-vaccinated international travellers, while Fiji has ditched pre-departure COVID-19 testing as an entry requirement as of May 1.
The news comes as a relief for expats like Greg Pechan, the Australian-born founder and owner of resort Havannah Vanuatu in Efate.
"It's been an enormous struggle financially, on everyone, just supporting our community," said Pechan.
Pechan used the hiatus from tourism to carry out some renovations, but the economic repercussions have been devastating for the community.
"Prior to the closure of borders we had 75 staff – we've managed to keep half employed on a part-time basis, trying to sustain a three-day-a-week opening during these last two years," he said.
The luxury couple's resort relies heavily on Australian visitors, who account for about 70-75 per cent of pre-pandemic business, so news of the soon-to-be-relaxed COVID-19 restrictions has been cause for celebration.
"We were very excited that the Vanuatu government is opening borders, they've done a great job in keeping Vanuatu COVID-safe, and now it's a situation where we need to rebuild the economy again," said Pechan.
Border closures highlight how acutely reliant these Pacific island nations were on tourism. In the first year of the pandemic, Vanuatu's GDP fell by 14.3 per cent, then 2.6 per cent the following year – the seventh worst outcome in the world, according to an ANZ report.
Figures show the eased restrictions are already rousing Australian travellers to book an island escape. Air Vanuatu resumes international services to Port Vila on July 1, following a suspension since March 2020, and flight interest has shot up significantly.
Paul Forbes, Air Vanuatu's commercial manager Australia, said following news of a quarantine-free travel restart, enquiries "peaked like never before", with extra staff being deployed to handle the surge.
"Online traffic and general online activity has also spiked since the announcement," Forbes said.
While the interest is clearly there, the question of which island nations are currently or soon to be welcoming overseas visitors for isolation-free travel – and how complex their entry requirements are – varies across the Pacific.
Fiji, which emerged as Australia's number one short-term overseas destination straight out of the gate in December 2021, has dropped pre-departure rapid antigen or RT-PCR COVID-19 testing for fully-vaccinated travellers, with the provision visitors purchase insurance with COVID-19 coverage (the latter requirement remains a sticking point for most countries as the world reopens).
The Cook Islands restarted isolation-free travel with Australia last month, then sweetened their proposition by ditching pre-departure testing for international arrivals on May 1.
COVID testing requirements remain for the majority of Pacific nations. New Caledonia has axed its seven-day self-isolation rule for fully-vaxxed visitors, though tourists still need to present a negative COVID test taken 72 hours prior to departure, and two days after arrival. Palau requires vaccination documentation and negative COVID tests within three days of departure, and again on day four of arrival.
In French Polynesia, authorities still have a number of strict pre-departure measures in place, including pre-departure COVID tests and proof of COVID booster shots for visitors who received their last dose more than nine months prior to boarding.
A number of South Pacific archipelagos are yet to announce restart dates.
Tonga's border reopening has been delayed due to a spate of COVID-19 outbreaks and volcanic activity.
Samoa's prime minister Fiamē Naomi Mata'afa just announced the country is on track to reopen borders for quarantine-free travel from around August or September of this year, subject to the nation's vaccination progress.
Pechan is hoping these factors don't go unnoticed by Australian holidaymakers when deciding on their next short-term trip abroad.
"We've already seen excitement about it, so we're starting to push the message out that Vanuatu's open again," said Pechan.
"It's a wonderful place to come – it's so close to Australia, we're only a short flight from Sydney and Brisbane, we're now closer than Fiji. I'm sure if they come over they'll fall in love with the country just like I have."