Motu Owner Advocating for a ‘Pacific Bubble’ with New Zealand

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This story has been reposted from Radio New Zealand.

Two of the country’s busiest airports have sketched out their plans for an international travel bubble should the government announce one.

Auckland Airport said it would physically divide operations to allow unrestricted travel to and from the Covid-free Cook Islands. Wellington Airport also said it could segregate flyers.

But the government here is exercising caution, frustrating specialist workers with contracts and commitments in Pacific Island countries.

Bubble travel would mean both Auckland and Wellington airports would be effectively split into two – one “safe” zone for Covid-free travellers, and one “contained” zone for people returning from elsewhere in the world. Even the ventilation in Auckland’s case would be separate systems.

New Zealand Aviation Coalition co-chair Justin Tighe-Umbers said airports had put a lot of work in to be ready if and when the government made the call.

“There’s certainly a lot of pent up demand in New Zealand for people to go off to a tropical island, especially in the middle of winter,” he said.

“We’ve obviously seen a lot of media coverage out of the Pacific Island governments, and they are ready to go and want to see this happen. It’s going to be so important for their economies.”

Tighe-Umbers said the airports’ statements did not mean the government was about to announce a travel corridor, but rather the airports were preparing ahead of time.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s cautious stance is frustrating those who take their New Zealand expertise to the Pacific islands.

Cook Island-New Zealander surgeon John Dunn has travelled to his birth country for specialist surgeries for the last 15 years.

He is based in Auckland and should he travel to the Covid-free Cook Islands he would still have to quarantine on returning to New Zealand for two weeks, which makes any trip unrealistic.

“You’re not going to die from the virus there, but I’m concerned that people will suffer from all of the other conditions that aren’t being treated ideally because people such as myself and a lot of my specialist colleagues just can’t get there. I really need to get up there to work,” Dunn said.

Tourism is a significant part of the country’s economy, but visitor numbers have completely dried up.

Dunn said the Cook Islands government has shown its interest in a travel bubble, and it was New Zealand that was holding it up.

“I think the New Zealand government has been excellent with this coronavirus thing, and I’m reluctant to criticise, but I think that we are unnecessarily tardy in opening an air bridge into the Cook Islands because it’s safe on both sides of the bridge.”

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Expat Kiwi engineer living in Fiji, Geoff Cable, said due to quarantine requirements, specialist workers from New Zealand needed for large and important infrastructure jobs could not justify the trip on the basis of a two-week stand-down period once they were back here.

He said these jobs employed people and delivered good services to Fiji.

“You need people to be able to fly in, fly out. There’s something to be said for coming into the country for a week, looking at a specific issue, spending some time with the locals, helping with training or problem solving, and then flying out again.”

New Zealand Pacific Business Council chair Peter McGill agreed.

Cable said many Pacific Islands were Covid free, and were struggling without regular access to New Zealand tourists and specialists.

“We seem to feel there is a view that a trans-Tasman bubble is more important than the Pacific, and I hope that’s not the case because I believe our Pacific neighbours are in far greater need of an early opening of their borders with New Zealand,” McGill said.

Ardern has played down expectations of any imminent international bubble. She said any decision would be made with “absolute caution” for the safety of both New Zealand and the Pacific.