The International Pilots Association has formally requested that a NZ-Australia travel zone be extended to Pacific nations including Fiji, Vanuatu and Cook Islands, “which rely on tourism and have been hit hard by the economic impact of the pandemic”.
In a letter to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday, Association president Mark Sedgwick said: “Fiji has recorded only 18 Covid-19 cases and no deaths, while Vanuatu and the Cook Islands have no confirmed cases to date.
“The success of Australia’s Pacific neighbours in limiting the spread of Covid-19 represents an opportunity to cautiously expand the travel zone to these island nations.”
There is an increasing scientific consensus that opening the Cook Islands-New Zealand border could be viable, as soon as next month.
Cook Islands is Covid-free, and New Zealand has only one remaining active case, an Auckland woman in her 50s – unlike Australia which has 487 actives cases and more being reported every day.
Despite this, New Zealand foreign affairs minister Winston Peters has fueled perceptions of New Zealand government reluctance to create a Pacific bubble. “The last thing we want to do is imperil the populations of those countries, like Niue, like the Cook Islands, like Samoa,” he said.
In part, New Zealand doesn’t want to be held responsible for spreading the virus through the Pacific, as with the Spanish flu in 1918, and measles last year.
But the New Zealand government also has to balance its historical and constitutional obligations to the Pacific, especially the realm countries of Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, with the demands of its domestic tourism industry – which wants Kiwis to holiday at home.
Today, Queen’s Birthday honour recipient surgeon George Ngaei, adds his voice to those of Pacific health leader Dr Collin Tukuitonga, and Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, all arguing for the flights to resume across the Pacific, 21 or 28 days after New Zealand’s last active case.
Professor Michael Hall, in the University of Canterbury’s department of management, marketing and entrepreneurship, said a trans-Pacific bubble would be mutually beneficial in terms of travel, tourism and trade.
“Leaving the Pacific countries out of the travel bubble would potentially be extremely damaging to New Zealand's relationships to those countries... Allowing the travel bubble to expand to them would be much better than having to increase aid.”
Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown has backed Private Sector Taskforce calls for the border to reopen next month.
And Rarotongan resort owner Tata Crocombe said: “The Cook Islands needs tourists – not aid, not financial bailouts, not loans, not using up its reserves.
“There is a concern in the Cook Islands about a case arising and not being able to get them off the island. The simple solution to that is to require all visitors to have full insurance for medical evacuation should they contract or show symptoms of coronavirus whilst in the Cook Islands.
“I daresay that most visitors from New Zealand would be more than happy to pay the $25 or so to purchase such insurance so they could get back to New Zealand immediately if necessary.”
He called on the New Zealand government to be responsive to the wished of Cook Islands people.
“I don't believe a unilateral opening of the border is feasible. It's a bit like unilaterally try to marry somebody. It takes two to tango.
“However, it is pretty clear that New Zealand would be guided by the wishes of the Cook Islands and any other South Pacific nation and would not wish to be seen to be bullying the Cook Islands particularly when the benefit would be primarily for the Cook Islands not New Zealand.”