With no cases of Covid-19 and an economy dependent on tourism, the Cook Islands Government and Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council are keen to see the resumption of regular scheduled flights between New Zealand and Rarotonga. Niue, which is also free of the Covid virus, is also being considered for inclusion in a Pacific Islands travel bubble. Both the Cooks and Niue are, together with the New Zealand mainland, constituent components of the Realm of New Zealand. Taken together with their Covid-free status, the time may be right for the carefully managed return of travel between them and New Zealand.
The New Zealand border closure on 19 March was welcomed by many of the Pacific Island countries because large numbers, and in some cases all, of their international arrivals must first pass through Auckland, meaning that it also served to seal off their countries to the virus.
Although initially recording a higher fatality rate than Australia (1.4% of confirmed Covid-19 cases resulted in death in New Zealand, compared to 1.2% in Australia), strict lockdown measures brought that under control.
Both the Cooks and Niue are also Covid-free and (as of publication) it is 95 days since New Zealand last saw a case with an initially unknown source. As in Western Australia, which has also effectively eradicated the virus, the only cases to have occurred have come from returning nationals and permanent residents, who are undergoing hotel quarantine or self-isolation. None of the 24 currently active cases in NZ require hospitalisation.
A limited number of flights have been operating between Auckland and Rarotonga since 19 June, when the Cook Islands Government reopened its border to Cook Islanders and residence permit holders who had not travelled outside New Zealand or the Cooks in the preceding 30 days.
With a total absence of foreign visitors since late-March, the Cook Islands Government has been lobbying Wellington for much of the past month to approve an air corridor open to business and, most especially, leisure travellers. Tourism plays a major role in the economy of the Cooks and New Zealanders are the largest group of visitors to the country, most whom come for holidays, weddings and honeymoons. According to statistics from the Cook Islands Ministry of Finance and Economic Management, New Zealanders accounted for 67 per cent of all visitor arrivals in 2019. Another twelve per cent of arrivals were Australians. As Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Brown, has pointed out:
‘While in New Zealand, tourism income makes up about six per cent of the GDP, in our country, tourism is our main industry and makes up 75 per cent to 80 per cent of GDP.’
In Niue, tourism has played a growing role over recent years as both Wellington and the local authorities have looked to capitalise on the island’s rugged, yet spectacular tropical beauty as a means of enhancing economic opportunities. Niue’s remote location, the limited number of accommodation options and flights (between just one and two per week from Auckland, in pre-Covid days), and small population, are factors that serve to limit – and also to enhance – its appeal.
While the Niuean authorities do not appear to have been lobbying as their counterparts from the Cooks have, they will be aware of the importance of an air corridor to facilitate travel to New Zealand for medical care or family reasons. Niueans and Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens. Although around 2,000 people live on Niue itself, approximately 24,000 people of Niuean ancestry live in New Zealand, underscoring the importance of a travel bubble to family ties. A similar situation occurs in the Cooks, which has a resident population of 17,900, while the 2013 census showed around 62,000 people identifying as Cook Islanders live in New Zealand.
Given their shared status as self-governing Realm territories, it perhaps also makes sense constitutionally speaking (although New Zealand, like the UK, has an iterative, rather than a written constitution), to begin relaxing travel restrictions with the Cooks and Niue first.
To facilitate an air bridge if, or when, approval is forthcoming, Auckland Airport is already in the advanced stages of planning for the separation of passengers to Covid-free destinations. Separate sections of the international terminal are being created to separate passengers travelling to and from “safe” Zone A Covid-free countries from those arriving from Zone B areas, on repatriation flights primarily to and from Singapore, the Middle East, India, the United States and the east coast of Australia.
Zone B, or the “health management area”, will reportedly feature only basic facilities, in contrast to Zone A, which is intended to offer a dining, drinking and shopping environment that is very close to that of pre-pandemic days. According to Auckland Airport, Zone B will be inaccessible to Zone A travellers and located in a part of the terminal that uses different heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, with a UV filtration system to further treat and clean the air, and include a separate border processing facility. Similar arrangements are reportedly being planned at Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown airports.
No firm starting date has yet been given for any such Pacific travel bubble, but Air New Zealand is reportedly keen to return to the Islands and expects that Jetstar will also join it on the resumed routes. Down in Christchurch, plans are afoot for a new airline, to be called Jet Raro, and which will begin by flying non-stop between the South Island and Rarotonga.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is yet to indicate any starting date, but she has said that, as New Zealand passport holders, Cook Islanders would be given priority. The PM also reiterated that a Pacific travel bubble will only happen with ‘absolute caution’ for the safety of both New Zealand and the Pacific and that it will now ‘come before any opening up with Australia’.
The greatest risk to a potential Pacific travel bubble is, of course, that the virus may inadvertently be transmitted to the islands, possibly by someone who has it yet is asymptomatic. Clearly, the testing arrangements will need to be rigorous. After all, any lingering hopes for the original plan of a trans-Tasman travel bubble (even if on a state-by-state basis), have evaporated with the resurgence of the virus in Victoria and New South Wales.
If successful, the Cooks and Niue travel bubble could be replicated reasonably easily with other Pacific Island countries that also have close links to New Zealand, such as Samoa and Tonga, before potentially being expanded again – Covid-19 permitting – to Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and, hopefully, Australia.