‘Couldn’t sleep last night’: joy at New Zealand airports as Covid travel ban on Australians lifts

Change to border restrictions marks first step in welcoming international visitors back to country after two years

“Hello & kia ora & g’day & welcome” a sign waved at Auckland’s international airport said on Wednesday morning as Australian travellers set foot on New Zealand soil for the first time since the short-lived travel bubble between the two countries abruptly ended in mid-2021.

More than 4,000 people travelling from Australia on Air New Zealand flights are expected to arrive at Auckland and Wellington airports on Wednesday, after the Covid-19 border restrictions lifted at midnight.

Vaccinated Australians and permanent residents can enter New Zealand if they have had a negative pre-departure test. On arrival, they must self-test for Covid-19, and unless it comes back positive for the virus, there is no requirement to enter quarantine or self-isolation.

Wednesday marks the first step in re-welcoming international visitors back to the country – a long wait for many, which was evident as family and friends greeted arrivals with tears and embraces, to the backdrop of waiata (Māori song).

Bette-May Waine, right, welcomes family from Australia at Auckland international airport.
Bette-May Waine, right, welcomes family at Auckland international airport. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Constanza Munoz told national broadcaster RNZ she had been waiting for her sister’s arrival at the airport since 4am. “I couldn’t sleep last night, I am very excited, I am shaking.”

Munoz said many members of her family were still to meet her daughter, born in 2020, and she had been dreaming of this moment for a long time.

Jenny Macks and her two daughters, Emily and Brianna, wept after a two-year wait to see one another. Speaking to news website Stuff, they said the time had been tough and their reunion was “ a long time coming”.

For almost two years, the arrival terminals at New Zealand’s international airports have been desolate. 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. An earlier border reopening announcement in 2021 was derailed by the arrival of Omicron.

Bette-May Waine, left, thanks Maori cultural performers at Auckland international airport
Bette-May Waine, left, thanks Maori cultural performers at the Auckland airport. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

The quarantine restrictions were lifted in early March for New Zealanders returning home. All other international visitors will be allowed to enter New Zealand from October, unless the government decides it is safe to do so earlier.

On Wednesday, the government announced that the entire country would move down Covid-19 alert levels, from red to orange, as cases within the community continue to drop. The change in setting means there are no longer limits on indoor or outdoor gatherings, and face masks will not be required at schools, though they are still encouraged.

Masks will still be required on public transport and flights, as well as within close-proximity businesses including hairdressers.

Air New Zealand said it was putting on 96 extra trans-Tasman flights from April-June to cope with demand.

Its chief customer and sales officer, Leanne Geraghty, said: “This is the first step in welcoming international visitors back to our shores and we couldn’t be more excited for both New Zealand and Air New Zealand.”

The tourism industry is fizzing with the possibility of returning Australian visitors. Pre-Covid, Australia was the largest tourism market, accounting for 39.6% of New Zealand’s international visitor arrivals.

Rebecca Ingram, the chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, said: “There’s definitely a more positive feeling about the future and the opportunities to rebuild businesses.”

Eva Corlett in Wellington

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