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New Zealand to reopen borders sooner than planned after years of COVID-19 isolation

New Zealand is bringing forward the opening of its international borders to some travellers after more than two years of COVID-19 isolation, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying an influx of tourists will boost the nation’s economy.

The change means the end of some of the toughest border controls in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, imposed as the government tried to keep the coronavirus out, comes months ahead of the previous schedule.

New Zealand’s policies helped keep infections and deaths low. But with the omicron variant now rampant, criticism has grown as business, particularly tourism, and agricultural sectors see little value in staying shut off from the world.

Ardern told reporters on Wednesday that vaccinated travellers from Australia, New Zealand’s biggest source of tourists, can enter without the need to quarantine from April 12 rather than July as previously planned.

Tourists from visa-waiver countries including the United States, Britain and Singapore will now able to visit from May 1.

“Closing our border was one of the first actions we took to stop COVID-19, over two years ago, and its reopening will spur our economic recovery throughout the remainder of the year,” she said.

The changes mean Australians will be able to travel to New Zealand in time for Easter school holidays next month.

All visitors must be vaccinated and provide negative COVID tests, but would not have to quarantine on arrival. The border is not scheduled to fully reopen until October to all travellers, but Ardern said this could also yet be brought forward.

Slow return

The news boosted airline and travel stocks in Australia and New Zealand, with Air New Zealand up 2.2 percent, Qantas Airways rising 2.5 percent and Auckland Airport gaining 1.1 percent in afternoon trading.

Foreigners were previously banned outright from entering, and until the last month citizens looking to return had to either make emergency requests to the government or secure a spot in state quarantine facilities.

“While we know it will take some time to see tourism scale up again, today’s announcement will be a welcome boost for our tourism operators who have done it harder than many,” Ardern said.

Closed borders have had a significant impact on the economy, cutting off the supply of seasonal labourers from Pacific nations and reducing air shipping options, as well as halting international tourism.

Prior to border closures, tourism directly contributed around 5.5 percent of GDP, or around NZ$41 billion ($28 billion). A further NZ$11 billion was indirectly generated by the sector.

A return to pre-COVID-19 tourism levels remains a long way off. Chinese tourists, which made up around 11 percent of visitors previously, can’t visit before October at this stage and others are expected to be more wary of travelling.

Lynda Keene, chief executive at the Tourism Export Council of New Zealand, said Australians are more likely to visit than other nationalities, and tourist numbers are not expected to return to pre-COVID levels until the year ending May 2026.

Labour shortages should also start to ease with the opening of the border longer term, but for most of the viticulture and horticulture sector it’s too late for this season with the harvest nearly done.

“It’s good news, but there is a ‘but’,” said Chris Lewis, immigration spokesperson for Federated Farmers, who expects it will take until at least October before things really start to improve.

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