Australians are queuing up to go on a safe overseas holiday. Ross Stitt argues that New Zealand is missing out on a potential bonanza if it doesn’t join the travel bubble.

The much-anticipated Trans-Tasman ‘travel bubble’ has finally arrived. Sort of …

Travellers from New Zealand are now allowed quarantine-free into New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Travellers into New Zealand remain subject to quarantine.

Strictly speaking, it takes two to do the travel bubble tango. However, having failed to get Jacinda to join him on the dance floor, the Australian PM has decided to start solo. He hopes that his moves will prove too appealing for Ardern to resist.

Will Kiwis flock across the ditch for holidays if they face a two-week quarantine on their return? Probably not. But Australia may lure unemployed New Zealanders who are prepared to work in the agricultural sector or fill other jobs outside the capital cities. PM Scott Morrison may also want to attract enterprising young Kiwis who see better long-term economic prospects in a country that is prepared to do more than just sit in splendid isolation and wait for a Covid-19 vaccine.

If a one-way Trans-Tasman bubble is a threat to New Zealand, a two-way bubble is a fantastic opportunity. Pre-Covid-19, international tourism was one of New Zealand’s major export earners – $17 billion in the year to March 2019. The biggest contributor was Australia. Based on historical figures, the current absence of visitors from the lucky country is costing New Zealand thousands of jobs. However, historical figures don’t tell the full story.

In the year to March 2019, Australians over the age of 15 went on 9.9 million overseas trips (1.3 million of them to NZ). For the past six months they have not been allowed to go anywhere. They are prohibited from leaving the country without an exemption, something that is extremely difficult to obtain.

The result is an unprecedented pent up demand to travel.

From poor students who would normally go backpacking in Asia to rich retirees deprived of their annual first-class European sojourn, literally millions of Australians are chomping at the bit to flee the country. And a holiday in the land of the long white cloud is looking incredibly appealing to many of them. The flight is only three hours, there is little or no Covid-19, and the food, wine, and scenery are great. No other destination can offer that trifecta.

If New Zealand agreed to a two-way bubble, the floodgates would open. Australians not allowed to go anywhere else would pour into NZ. (The Australian newspapers are already spruiking it.) That would immediately stimulate significant economic activity and get many Kiwis working again. Importantly, it would enable many tourism businesses to survive pending the slow recovery of international travel in the years ahead.

Of course, Trans-Tasman travel is not just about tourists. There is normally a constant stream of family and friends between the two countries. That came to a grinding halt in March with the introduction of quarantines. The negative impact of this effective long-term closure of the border should not be underestimated, particularly where sick and ageing relatives are involved.

So, what is New Zealand waiting for?

Prime Minister Ardern says that the reason she is not ready for quarantine-free travel with Australia is “safety”. She will not contemplate a bubble with anyone without 28 days free of community transmission.

New South Wales cannot currently satisfy that test. However, a quick review of the current Covid-19 numbers in the state together with the safety measures that could accompany a travel bubble, suggest that Ardern’s test may be unreasonable and misconceived.

In the last 28 days, New South Wales has carried out over 290,000 tests and recorded just 51 cases of community transmission (47 from ‘known sources’ that are subject to strict monitoring). That from a population of over eight million. Therefore, if a travel bubble existed between NSW and NZ, the likelihood of visitors from NSW having Covid-19 would be extremely low.

The residual risk could be further reduced in two ways. First, if the numbers deteriorated in any part of NSW, travellers from there would not be allowed. This ‘Covid hotspot’ safeguard is already included in Scott Morrison’s existing ‘semi-bubble’. Secondly, both temperature testing and rapid antigen testing could be used to screen passengers departing NSW and/or arriving in New Zealand. Italy is now using an antigen test at its international airports that produces a result in 20-30 minutes. Heathrow Airport is about to introduce one-hour testing before passengers fly out.

Finally, in the unlikely event that someone from NSW with Covid-19 got into New Zealand, NSW has shown that the disease can be controlled with a comprehensive and competent contact tracing system.

New Zealand is currently condemning many Kiwis to unemployment and stopping countless others from visiting sick and ageing relatives. For what? To prevent the remote prospect of a handful of Covid-19 cases.

The current position cannot be justified on the grounds that it puts lives ahead of money. That argument says more about its proponents’ ignorance of the welfare consequences of a severe economic downturn than their moral superiority. The impact of unemployment, small business failures, and dividing families is measured in more than dollars and cents.

No doubt politics are playing a role here. Jacinda Ardern has understandably benefitted from her management of Covid-19. She clearly didn’t want to rock the boat before the election. Hopefully, common sense and sound policy will now prevail.

New Zealand should not wait too long. The Australian government is already talking to other countries about a travel bubble, including South Korea, Singapore, and Japan. Last year nearly 50 percent of Australian international travellers went to Asia. New Zealand needs to grab first mover advantage.

[The Australian Prime Minister will keep up the pressure. He might even reprise the inimitable slogan Tourism Australia employed when he was its MD in a former life – “So where the bloody hell are you”.]

Ross Stitt is a freelance writer based in Sydney with a PhD in political science.

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