AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Airports in Australia and New Zealand were filled with emotional scenes on Monday as thousands of passengers were allowed to travel freely between the two countries for the first time in more than a year.
The travel bubble, among the first of its kind in the world, establishes reciprocal quarantine-free movement between the two Pacific nations, subject to certain conditions. While most Australian states have waived quarantine for travelers from New Zealand since late last year, New Zealand had until Monday been hesitant to extend the same treatment to travelers from Australia.
Many travelers reunited with family members they had not seen in a year or longer: grandchildren (and great-grandchildren); sisters; parents. One 7-year-old girl at the airport in Wellington, New Zealand, was said to be reuniting with her mother for the first time in 15 months. For others, the opening of the bubble allowed them to leave one country for a new life in the other.
The border restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic have been especially jarring for Australians and New Zealanders, who have been able to live and work indefinitely in one another’s countries without a visa since the 1970s. Around 570,000 people born in New Zealand live in Australia, according to government statistics, and more than 60,000 Australian-born people in New Zealand.
“We have genuinely missed our Australian cousins,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand told reporters on Monday afternoon. She added: “And that’s because, in some cases, they are literally our cousins. That’s certainly the case for me.”
In Wellington, the end of the runway was painted in giant letters with the words “Welcome Whanau,” a word that means “family” in Te Reo Maori, the language of New Zealand’s Indigenous people. Travelers emerging into the arrival hall were welcomed by cheers, camera flashes and dancers performing the haka, a Maori tradition.
Australia and New Zealand closed their borders to foreigners in March 2020, as the coronavirus quickly progressed across the world. The bubble is the product of months of setbacks and negotiations, and could be suspended or amended in the event of a new outbreak in either country.
Ms. Ardern has pointed to the bubble as a way to revive New Zealand’s ailing tourism industry, which before the pandemic employed nearly 230,000 of the country’s five million people, according to the country’s tourism board. Australians account for about 40 percent of New Zealand’s international tourism.
The bubble also represents a possible lifeline for airlines based in Australia and New Zealand, which have been forced to lay off thousands of staff members. They celebrated, appropriately, with plenty of bubbles: Air New Zealand ordered 24,000 bottles of Champagne for the occasion, handing out free glasses to passengers on predawn flights.
Australia and New Zealand have all but eliminated local transmission of the coronavirus from their shores, through a combination of stringent lockdowns, closed borders and rigorous two-week quarantines for the few allowed to enter the country. As a result, daily life has a semblance of normalcy.
But neither country is likely to open to the whole world anytime soon, especially with their vaccination drives off to a slow start.
“Australia is in no hurry to open those borders, I assure you,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday. “I will not be putting at risk the way we are living in this country, which is so different to the rest of the world today.”