‘Lots of happy tears’: joy as New Zealand opens border after two years of isolation

Some reunions were also tempered by grief, as for many New Zealanders the reopening came too late

Tears, hugs, laughter and the shouts of children echoed through the arrivals halls of New Zealand, as the country opened its borders and lifted isolation requirements.

“I’ve been waiting six months for this moment,” says Steve, 72, who was waiting for his fiancee, Karin, to arrive from Australia. “I’m over the moon,” he said. “I feel a bit shaky.”

Steve said he had cleaned their motor-home, complete with karaoke machine, from top to bottom, in preparation for taking a trip around New Zealand for the pair to see their friends and family. “We’ve been talking on the phone for five hours a day to keep our sanity that way,” says Steve. “It’s been very hard.”

For almost two years, New Zealand’s international airports’ arrival terminals have been shuttered ghost towns. Apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, the country’s borders have been closed, with those lucky enough to secure entry into the country whisked to government-managed isolation and quarantine facilities for a costly two weeks secluded in a hotel room.

Wednesday marked the end of that era for returning citizens, and for the first time since March 2020, flights on Thursday touched down full of New Zealanders without isolation or quarantine requirements.

Passengers and loved ones reunite in the arrivals hall of Auckland airport.
Apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, New Zealand’s borders have been shut for almost two years. Photograph: David Rowland/AFP/Getty Images

For others, the joy of a reunion was tempered by grief. “I’m waiting for my brother and his new bride,” said Tania Fitzhenry, breaking into tears. “We’re trying to get back down to Huntly in time for him to see our dad.”Advertisement

The family has been waiting a long time for border restrictions to lift, so that her brother could return and say farewell to their very unwell father. “It feels like forever,” she says. “I think Dad’s been waiting all week. I hope to God, please hold on, he’s just got to hold on a couple more hours. Up until last night we were saying, dad, it’s OK to let go – but then [it became] Craig’s close enough now, you’ve got to hold on.”

New Zealand’s initial staged border reopening plan, first announced in November, was derailed by the arrival of Omicron. The government resurrected its reopening plans in February, with the proviso that travellers still had to self-isolate for 10 days. This week, as the country’s Covid transmission rates soared to some of the highest in the world and cases in the community far outnumbered those at the border, that requirement was dropped and the entry dates for New Zealanders around the world were pulled forward.

For some New Zealanders, it marks the end of a bitter, difficult journey. Many have found themselves separated from family, unable to farewell dying loved ones, missing family milestones, in breach of visa requirements or forced into illegal overstaying overseas.

“People in this group have waited so long for this,” Justine Kirby of Grounded Kiwis, a group advocating on behalf of New Zealanders stranded overseas, said in a statement.

“[There are] many for whom this has come too late. And it’s also deeply personal for me: I haven’t seen any family members for almost four years now,” she said. After the announcement, “I called Mum and, for the first time since early 2020, we started to make some travel plans together. Lots of happy tears.”

The border opened to New Zealanders and eligible travellers arriving from Australia on Monday and, on Friday, it opens to all other New Zealanders. Cabinet will consider reopening dates for tourists and other visitors in the coming months.

From Thursday, vaccinated travellers will no longer need to self-isolate but will still be required to undergo a Covid-19 test on arrival and on day five or six, prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday. If the traveller tests positive for the virus, they will be required to self-isolate, in line with requirements for New Zealanders. Unvaccinated travellers will still have to stay in managed isolation.

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