It may be some time before tourists are traveling the globe again. But what if you could travel through designated, approved parts of it?
Politicians from Australia and New Zealand are discussing the possibility of opening up borders to each other, creating a travel corridor – or “travel bubble” – between the two nations.
Both countries almost completely shut their borders to foreigners in March, a huge blow to their respective tourism industries. But with both appearing to have successfully brought their coronavirus outbreaks under control, politicians are now talking about when borders could be opened to each other.
“If there is any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that’s New Zealand,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last month.
“That is a situation we would all like to be in, but of course, our number one focus at the moment is making sure that both our countries are in the position where we’re domestically managing Covid-19 to a point where we can with confidence open borders,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on April 27.
“One thing I’m not willing to do is jeopardize the position that New Zealand has got itself into by moving too soon to open our borders – even to Australia.”
It’s not clear when this “bubble” could become a reality – currently both countries still have domestic travel restrictions in place, and all international arrivals are subject to a 14-day quarantine.
Travel industry experts say August is when the corridor is likely to be rolled out, possibly in time for the ski season in New Zealand and the school holidays in September.
A special relationship
There are a few reasons why New Zealand and Australia would be each other’s first pick.
Although the two countries are separated by about 2,000 km (1,243 miles) of sea, they have one of the closest bilateral relationships in the world. Australian passport holders can travel and work in New Zealand indefinitely without a visa, and vice versa.
The two countries also contribute heavily to each other’s tourism industry.
Australians make up almost 40% of international arrivals to New Zealand, and around 24% of New Zealand’s international visitor spend. That’s especially significant in New Zealand, where tourism is the country’s biggest export industry. (Tourism is considered an export industry because it involves foreign cash being used to buy New Zealand’s goods and services.)
Over in Australia, New Zealanders make up around 15% of the country’s international visitors, and only about 6% of the international visitor spend. Tourism is still worth billions to Australia, although it is only the country’s fourth biggest export industry.
In both countries, tourism industries have taken a massive hit from the coronavirus outbreak – so it’s no surprise that industry representatives are welcoming the prospect of a travel bubble.
“The message from the industry side is that the bubble is a goer,” said Simon Westaway, the executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, adding that it was the only way of getting international tourism into Australia in the near future.
“If we can add in the Australians, that would be enormously beneficial for the survival of tourism businesses and thousands of jobs,” said Chris Roberts, the chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, which represents the tourism industry in New Zealand. He added that the amount tourists spend in New Zealand had dropped by at least 2 billion New Zealand dollars ($1.22 billion) a month.
But Roberts isn’t expecting the levels of Australian tourists that New Zealand had pre-Covid – he thinks many would opt to just travel domestically.
In Australia, some tour operators had been focusing their attention on China, which makes up about 15% of travelers to Australia but 27% of total tourist spend. Westaway said those businesses would need to adapt and work out how to appeal to more Kiwi travelers.
How would it work?
One thing to keep in mind: Australia is made up of states and territories, and some of those currently have additional quarantine rules in place. For instance, a person traveling from Sydney (in New South Wales) to Brisbane (in Queensland) would need to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine period.
Airports may also need to roll out new procedures.
Roberts envisions a future where tourists may turn up to the airport, be tested for Covid-19 and only be allowed on the plane once they’ve got a negative result. Once they are at their destination, they may have their temperature checked. Travelers may need to supply more information than usual so they can be easily traced, if necessary.
Both Roberts and Westaway believe the bubble would only work if the current 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the country is removed.
Once the trans-Tasman bubble is tried and tested, New Zealand could look to include other territories in its bubble – perhaps Taiwan and Hong Kong, Roberts said.
“I think it will be on a country by country basis,” he said. “A general opening of borders could be a very long time away.”
Could the bubble get bigger?
There’s also some discussion about broadening the bubble to include the Pacific Islands.
From a health perspective, the Pacific Island nations appear to have escaped the coronavirus outbreak largely unscathed. Fiji – the worst affected Pacific Island nation – has reported only 18 coronavirus cases and no deaths. Guam – which is a US territory and not a nation – has reported more than 140 coronavirus cases and five deaths.
Many Pacific Island nations closed borders early to protect against potential spread.
But the pandemic has hurt tourism to the Pacific Islands, one of the most aid-dependent regions in the world.
Ardern has urged caution on including the Pacific, saying: “Our Pacific neighbors in large part have not been afflicted by Covid-19, and the last thing we would want is to risk that.”
But broadening Australia and New Zealand’s travel bubble to at least some Pacific Islands would help boost the islands’ tourism industry, said Stephen Howes, the director of the Development Policy Center at Australian National University in Canberra.
“For a lot of people, it’s very tough,” he said of the effect on tourism in the Pacific. “Some have gone back to their village … people are just struggling to get by.”
“Obviously no country would be forced to do this,” he said, adding that the travel corridor could always be stopped if it didn’t work. “It would be a complex undertaking … but it’s certainly worth trying.”
And including the Pacific would also help Australia and New Zealand, allowing migrant workers to enter both countries. The inclusion could also have a huge soft power impact in the region, which is of strategic importance to New Zealand, Australia and China.
“This is a real test,” Howes said. “If Australia and New Zealand go ahead and just have a trans-Tasman partnership, they could really antagonize the Pacific. It would be like, ‘well you don’t really care.’”
Roberts agreed that the bubble would benefit the Pacific, saying that without tourism, their economies are in significant trouble.
“In terms of economic aid to our Pacific neighbors, that would be the best thing we could do for them – as long as we could do it safely.”
Is this the future of travel?
A potential Australia and New Zealand travel bubble may end up being a model for the rest of the world, Roberts and Westaway say.
Like other countries around the world, New Zealand and Australia will need to be careful not to move too fast and create a second Covid-19 wave.
Moving too fast could also jeopardize their image with international tourists, who view the countries as clean, trustworthy places.
But generally, Roberts and Westaway are hopeful.
“If (the detail) can be worked out between New Zealand and Australia, then they can be applied to other places as well,” Roberts said.
“There’s quite a lot of attention paid to this part of the world now because of the apparent success of New Zealand and Australia containing the virus outbreak. If we can also then come up with a way to resume travel between countries, I’m sure the rest of the world will be taking a very keen interest to see how that works.”