Australia, New Zealand partnering on COVID-19 ‘travel bubble’

Australia, New Zealand partnering on COVID-19 ‘travel bubble’

FORUM Staff

A proposed COVID-19 safe travel zone between Australia and New Zealand could speed post-pandemic economic recovery and eventually encompass other Pacific islands, the leaders of those two nations announced recently. 

Separated by about 2,000 kilometers across the Tasman Sea, Australia and New Zealand are major trading partners in goods and services. About one-fifth of New Zealand’s services exports are to Australia, with nearly one-third of its services imports crossing the Tasman in the opposite direction, according to New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The nations’ free trade agreement also allows their combined populace of about 30 million to move freely between the countries for tourism, work and residency.

“A trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone would be mutually beneficial, assisting our trade and economic recovery, helping kick-start the tourism and transport sectors, enhancing sporting contacts, and reuniting families and friends,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a joint statement May 5, 2020.

The neighbors have been praised for responding swiftly to the novel coronavirus outbreak by imposing lockdown measures now credited with curtailing the spread of the deadly virus within their borders. As of the first week of May 2020, Australia had reported about 100 COVID-19 deaths and New Zealand about 20. Both nations were moving forward with plans for a phased easing of restrictions.

However, Morrison and Ardern cautioned the so-called “travel bubble” initiative would proceed with safety at the forefront.

“Neither country wants to see the virus rebound so it’s essential any such travel zone is safe,” their statement said. “Relaxing travel restrictions at an appropriate time will clearly benefit both countries and demonstrates why getting on top of the virus early is the best strategy for economic recovery.”

(Pictured: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison discusses the proposed trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone between his nation and New Zealand.)

The announcement came a day after Ardern joined, via videoconference, a meeting of Australia’s National Cabinet to discuss the proposal. She was the first New Zealand prime minister to join an Australian Cabinet meeting since World War II.

Since the pandemic’s onset, citizens of New Zealand and Australia have been permitted to travel through each other’s country on their way home. 

“Our relationship is one of family — and our unique travel arrangement means we have a head-start for when it is time to get trans-Tasman travel flowing again,” the prime ministers’ statement said.

Travel across the Tasman Sea — known locally as “the Ditch” — binds the nations. In 2019, about 1.2 million New Zealanders visited Australia and 1.6 million Australians visited New Zealand, Ardern said during a May 5, 2020, media conference.

“Part of the reason for so much travel is that families and friendships, of course, span the Tasman,” she said. “There are around 75,000 Australians in New Zealand, and more than half a million Kiwis in Australia.”

Globally, the coronavirus crisis has disrupted supply chains and decimated tourism. In Australia, the virus has been a wrecking ball to the nation’s U.S. $100 billion tourism and visitor economy, Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, said in an April 2020 statement.

Ardern and Morrison said their governments would begin developing “health, transport and other protocols” for the trans-Tasman zone in conjunction with stakeholders, including business leaders.

 “Once we have established effective travel arrangements across the Tasman, we will also explore opportunities to expand the concept to members of our broader Pacific family, enabling travel between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific island countries,” the prime ministers said.

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