Under lockdown, tourists are still able to catch a flight out of the country, but with global aviation shutting down ‘mercy’ flights are the only option for some

When Fabio Zander and his partner started their working holiday here nearly a year ago, New Zealand was not the kind of place where people would stop you on the street and ask you to leave the country.

“Just a couple of days ago, we were in Raglan and people just came up to us and without saying [hello] said ‘some of your colleagues are not behaving correctly, you better get home’,” Zander said.

“For us, it’s totally the opposite of the usual hospitality of the Kiwis,” he said.

“I think it’s just fear and people being afraid so [they’re] not to blame.”

Zander is one of 200,000 visitors still in the country according to an estimate from Stats NZ released on Wednesday.

Stats NZ said there were between 240,000 and 260,000 people who had expressed an intention not to stay here when they entered the country. One in six of those were New Zealand citizens which left 200,000 potential tourists still in the country at lockdown.

Visas for thousands of tourists, workers and students were due to expire next month. Those set to end after April 1 have been automatically extended out to September, as have other visas like work visas.

The visa extension will apply to Zander but won’t apply to the 18,946 people whose temporary visas were set to expire by Wednesday next week. They will have to apply for an interim visa. 

Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin said it could prove difficult for those people to apply for a new visa under lockdown.

Some of those visa holders might need to obtain a police clearance or other documentation when they re-applied. INZ’s online system would prevent them from lodging an application altogether if they didn’t attach those, Martin said.

“My first question is why are they starting it from the 2nd of April…they add to their [Immigration New Zealand’s] workload and add to the stress anxiety levels [of] those people,” Martin said. 

“There’s a whole, large amount of processing that will be backlogged in their system [and] that’s going to create some uncertainty for some people,” he said.

“It’s a bit of a case of ‘wait and see’. There’s no template for this situation. No past experience.”

‘If the toilets close we have a big problem’

Zander said he started looking for flights three weeks ago but couldn’t find any with a departure date of less than a week out.

“We knew that it wouldn’t make sense to book a flight that is going in one week or two weeks because things can change so quickly. And they did,” Zander said.

Fabio Zander and his partner are hoping a German “mercy” flight will get them out of the country after commercial options dried up. Photo:supplied 

Some travellers made the first few legs of their flights back to Europe successfully then found themselves stranded in another location as borders closed on them.

For those stuck here without accommodation, the Government has provided an accomodation list

Four and five-star hotels made up the bulk of it when the lockdown deadline hit. Tourists would have to pay for their stay at those hotels. 

That seemed an unlikely option for people like Zander. He will mainly fund these next few weeks of lockdown from the proceeds of the campervan he just sold. 

“The market is crazy right now. People are trying to sell their vans before they [lockdown] for four weeks,” Zander said.

“I got lucky because I could sell it. So that’s the financial kind of rescue that we have,” he said. 

While Zander started looking for flights weeks ago the rapid escalation caught others like 19-year-old German backpackers Tim Huettinger and Sabrina Barotti, by surprise. 

“We’d been to a few i-Sites and they said ‘okay, you can keep travelling. It’s only Stage 2,” Huettinger said. 

“It was, like, four days ago so I didn’t think they saw that coming, I think,” Barotti added. 

Sabrina Barotti and Tim Huettinger arrived in January hoping to spend a year in New Zealand on a working holiday visa. Supplied photo

Huettinger said their names were on a list to fly back via a set of flights chartered by the German government to get their citizens home. They would be given 12 hours notice if they had been successful in securing a place.

Germany’s flights are their only hope as they didn’t have enough money to buy plane tickets back. They arrived in January for a working holiday and would hunker down in their van for the entire lockdown period if they weren’t able to get out of the country. 

The freedom camping site they were using closed down for the lockdown, but a member of the public felt sorry for them and offered them a space in their backyard.  

Huettinger said they would respect social distancing rules and wouldn’t go into their host’s house. That meant they had to look elsewhere for a shower and a toilet. 

He hoped a set of public toilets and showers they had found would remain open during the lockdown, despite Level 4 requiring the closure of all public facilities.

“We hope that they remain open because if they close we have a big problem,” Huettinger said. 

‘Someone please get us home’

Cutting short their stay in New Zealand was the option many like Zander preferred. 

“For us right now, it’s only two options: It’s either getting picked up by the German government or hanging in there and staying for longer than we expected,” Zander said.

Germany has struck a deal with airlines to fly their citizens back from key locations. The first flight from New Zealand will take Germans to Frankfurt via Tokyo on Lufthansa airlines. 

Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Dubai have all shut their transit facilities for people flying back to Europe as part of widespread travel restrictions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, the UK High Commission was flooded with tweets from frustrated travellers after it was announced the travel lockdown deadline for international tourists in New Zealand had been extended to midnight Friday.

British travellers tweeted in reply that the extension wouldn’t make a difference because no flights were available. One claimed to have spent over £2000 pounds in two days on flights that were subsequently cancelled, another simply said: “Someone please just help us to get home”. 

UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab faced some piercing questions from both sides of the aisle in the House of Commons on Tuesday, prompted by stranded constituents who had contacted their MPs back home.

“Over the last three days we’ve seen 80 countries place restrictions on their borders. That situation is unprecedented in scale,” Raab said in reply.

“Some of these restrictions are being imposed with no notice or little notice,” he said.

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