Cities across New Zealand are putting out the welcome mat for Australian arrivals, as trans-Tasman bubble travel begins.
From the air, arrivals to Wellington could see the words “Welcome Whānau”, the Māori term for family, painted in enormous letters next to the runways.
At Auckland airport, a choir warmed up for a rendition of Welcome Home, by Dave Dobbyn, and families waited to greet new arrivals, who landed just after 12.30pm.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, described the reunions at the airports as “something like a scene from Love Actually”.
“It is truly exciting to be able to welcome our Tasman cousins quarantine-free to Aotearoa,” Ardern said.
“Today marks an important milestone in NZ’s Covid-19 recovery.”
She said she would visit the airport later on Monday to celebrate, adding that the bubble between two countries was a world first, adding that people should be “very, very proud” of getting to this point.
She said the government was now exploring options for travel bubbles with other Covid-free nations in the Pacific, but not looking further afield than that.
About 400 quarantine-free flights per week are expected to arrive and leave, Auckland, by the end of the April. The New Zealand ski season is expected to be a big draw point in the winter.
Despite that upbeat mood, the bubble still represents a risk for New Zealand’s Covid-free haven – and a political risk for Ardern’s government. It has been greeted with trepidation by the wider New Zealand public, with polling finding only around half of New Zealanders, or 49%, were in favour of opening the trans-Tasman bubble.
The poll by Research New Zealand for RNZ surveyed a sample of 1,000 New Zealanders, and found 22% of respondents were still on the fence about the bubble, and 28% were against an opening.
Research NZ’s managing partner, Emanuel Kalafatelis, told RNZ that given the positive media coverage of the bubble, he was “surprised” by the results. “We thought the support would be a lot higher,” he said.
The top concern for those against the bubble was the risk of Australians bringing Covid into the country, and that it would cause further lockdowns. The top two reasons for those in favour were catching up with friends and family, and economic reasons, given the bubble is expected to stimulate New Zealand’s tourism, hospitality and retail sectors.
Those tourism operators are cautiously optimistic. In March, Tourism New Zealand forecast that opening travel to Australians could allow tourism revenue to recover to 70% of pre-Covid levels, in a NZ$1bn boost to the New Zealand economy over the rest of the year.
But major campervan operator Tourism Holdings Limited told TVNZ that so far, many Australians have been “window shopping”, with searches up, but not matched by an equivalent rise in bookings. Those may rise steadily: if initial flights are predominantly filled with reuniting families, subsequent arrivals could tilt more toward tourism.