Brook Sabin: What’s popping the Pacific travel bubble

Monday June 15, 2020 Written by Brook Sabin, from Stuff NZ. Published in Small World
New Zealand is blockading the Pacific but welcoming Australian dollars. 20061403 New Zealand is blockading the Pacific but welcoming Australian dollars. 20061403

OPINION: New Zealand has its own priorities that are more to do with blockading the Pacific in order to keeping the money flowing back and forth across the Tasman.

On Saturday, New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to welcome back crowds to professional sport. Around 20,000 packed Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium, and more than 40,000 jammed into Eden Park.

How galling this was to watch for a little island like Rarotonga?

Some resort owners would have been huddled around their screens, watching 40,000 people jammed into an area not much bigger than their own properties, which sit empty.

So, what's happening here - why isn't a Pacific travel bubble happening now? Here are the reasons why.



Safely finding a way to open our borders with Australia is worth billions to our economy. But it gets a little complex when we start to figure out how to process passengers, without quarantining them.

Australia does not have the same elimination strategy as we do, with its Government aiming to "minimise the number of people becoming infected or sick with Covid-19".

Australia currently has around 380 active cases, with 18 new infections reported in the past 24 hours. In other words, if we let Australians into New Zealand, there is a risk of importing a case.

Our Government will take that risk, trusting the systems we’ve spent months building up will defeat any outbreak. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern alluded to this, in a general sense, when she warned last week we would "almost certainly see cases here again".



We could start flying to Rarotonga tomorrow with little real risk. But what happens when the trans-Tasman bubble opens later this year? The Cook Islands wants Covid-19 free New Zealand tourists, but it would be dealing with an ANZAC bubble, where the Covid-19 status isn't clear.

Opening to Australia is risky, therefore if we’re already flying to the Pacific, they would be assuming that risk too.

We can't afford to export Covid-19 to the more vulnerable countries in the Pacific. The health systems wouldn't be able to cope with a sustained outbreak, and it could lead to a humanitarian disaster.

You and I are conjuring up images of a cocktail on the beach, whereas our health officials and politicians will be fearful of devastating pictures of swamped hospitals. The Cook Islands, for example, has no long term intensive care capacity. And then there would be the question of who let an outbreak happen - who is to blame?

There is another element here: protecting Kiwi travellers. If a case pops up in Australia while you're on holiday there, it will be managed without affecting you. If a case popped up while you were in Samoa or Rarotonga, the whole country could go into lockdown. And thousands of Kiwis may be stranded.



Opening up the Pacific is a net loss to our economy. Just when we need Kiwis to travel around New Zealand and help revive ailing tourist operators, we'd be opening up the tropical Pacific in the middle of winter. Tens of millions of tourist dollars would head off-shore.

In contrast, opening up to Australia is a net gain, with our tourism market gaining access to 25 million people.




Let's not forget Jacinda Ardern has also alluded to a potential travel bubble with Singapore. You can see a distinct possibility that places like Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand could have an active travel bubble next year. This would operate on the understanding that Covid-19 is controlled in each country, and if a case was imported, it could be quickly stamped out.

In this scenario, it is once again hard to see how the Pacific fits - because it simply doesn't have the systems to stamp out the disease. (That's aside from places like French Polynesia, and Fiji - which have had cases, and claimed to have eliminated them.)




After the trans-Tasman bubble is established and systems tested, Pacific countries are likely to be invited into the bubble with the full facts: they are not dealing with a Covid-19-free New Zealand. They are dealing with an ANZAC alliance, where there is a small risk of Covid-19.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed as much on the AM Show this morning, saying she spoke to Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna last week saying "one of the things we need to keep in mind is that the Cook Islands has to be happy, of course, to open to New Zealand - and also doing a little bit of thinking around whether or not they would be happy with the trans-Tasman arrangements as well. So it's making sure we can make that whole system work."

You could, of course, argue the other way around. We could start a travel bubble with safe countries like Rarotonga now, and only invite Australia once they have demonstrated their country is safe to join.

But at the moment, our eyes are on Australia - because it's a multi-billion game changer for our economy. And don't forget, an election is looming where the economy will be centre stage. – Stuff NZ


1 comment

  • Comment Link robert Thursday, 18 June 2020 23:35 posted by robert

    A bubble between NZ and the Cooks is very likely to occur before any NZ- Australia bubble. According to the Cooks deputy PM today the Cooks economy will collapse by Sept. The Cooks do not need to wait on NZ to open a bubble with Australia and what conditions thereof could be (indeed it will be up to Australia not just NZ). The NZ deputy PM said today a pacific bubble was weeks away and NZ is working through the detail e.g. Pacific (Cooks) Covid-19 controls and capability including medical. As the Cooks and NZ govt work through the detail, the Cooks can wait and see if NZ has its own border in hand still has elimination. The Cooks (& NZ) can also review and if necessary close any bubble created if circumstances require

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