When New Zealand finally announced plans this week for the return of international visitors, Eve Lawrence, general manager of the Haka Tourism Group in Auckland, could not find any reason to celebrate.
After nearly two years of border closures that have reduced business to a gutter, Lawrence has to wait at least another five months before welcome customers from abroad. Even then, tourists will have to isolate themselves at home for seven days – a requirement Lawrence believes will deter many from coming at all.
“We’ve lost the summer this year now and potentially we’ll lose next summer too because we are dependent on long lead times for people to come to New Zealand – I mean it’s a long way,” Lawrence said, adding that she expected travel agents and airlines not to market New Zealand under such conditions.
“They will not sell New Zealand, they will take us out of the brochure.”
Lawrence said her company, whose revenues have fallen by about 95 percent during the pandemic, is now gearing up for the potentially most difficult six months to date.
“The last 21 months have been an absolute struggle,” she said.
New Zealand’s decision to close its borders in March 2020 helped the country remain largely free of covid-19 throughout the pandemic until a major delta outbreak in September forced the authorities to move away from a strategy of eliminating “zero covid”.
The South Pacific country has reported fewer than 11,000 COVID-19 cases and only 41 deaths, one of the lowest tariffs in the world.
But the country’s strict border policy has left it increasingly isolated as most countries except China reopen and try to live with the virus. While New Zealand’s economy grew by 2.8 percent overall in the second quarter, there has been some respite for the country’s tourism and travel sector, which before the pandemic employed more than 225,000 people and accounted for 20 percent of exports.
In May, a survey conducted by Tourism Industry Aotearoa found that tourism companies had on average laid off 40 percent of staff and seen revenues halved in the previous 12 months.
On Wednesday, the Youth Hostel Association announced that they would permanently close all 11 of their hostels, citing the disappearing prospects of a resurgence of summer travel and a pandemic that had been going on “too long for us to ride it out”.
Brian Westwood, former president of the Youth Hostel Association, said the border messages were disappointing for a sector that had “mostly been abandoned” throughout the pandemic.
“It’s impossible to predict the effects because so many companies are privately owned and provided with personal finances, borrowed housing and family loans,” Westwood said. “Six more months without international visitors and fewer domestic visitors is an unacceptable situation for many.
Our industry is innovative, our operators are diligent and sought many ways to keep their heads above water, but the rising debt stream will simply be too much for some. ”
Westwood said companies could not understand why vaccinated New Zealanders could be allowed into the country from January but not visitors from abroad.
“Limiting the visit to New Zealanders defies only logic,” he said. “It is good for New Zealanders and is politically wise but it does nothing for the tourism sector.”
According to the boundary plans announced by covid-19 reaction minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday, fully vaccinated New Zealanders in Australia will be allowed to enter without having to isolate themselves from 17 January, with New Zealanders in other countries allowed to enter from 14 February. Fully vaccinated International visitors will be admitted from April 30 but will have to isolate themselves for seven days.
Although New Zealand’s strict covid-19 policy has received widespread public support, there are growing signs of discontent.
Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s approval is still well ahead of her rivals, approval ratings have fallen sharply from record highs during the early days of the pandemic. In September, John Key, a former prime minister of the rival National Party, warned in a newspaper article that the country needed to learn to live with covid-19 and could not exist as a “self-imposed hermitry”.
Michael Plank, a covid-19 modeler at the University of Canterbury who has advised the New Zealand government, said that although there was frustration in the tourism sector, most New Zealanders supported a cautious approach to easing border restrictions.
“We are still dealing with a shift from our previous elimination strategy, through an ongoing vaccine rollout, to more ‘COVID normal’,” said Plank. “Many parts of New Zealand are still COVID-free. This will not be forever, but it is worth preserving in the short term because we are still vaccinating.”
“We also need to keep an eye out for possible new variants of concern,” Plank added. “Border measures can be a key tool to protect against a potential new variant that can avoid the vaccine.”
For companies that depend on tourism, New Zealand’s isolation has already been going on for too long. While Haka Tourism was able to sell a number of properties to stay afloat, Lawrence believes many companies will not survive much longer.
“The last four months, if anything has taught me, are that they change every two weeks,” she said.
“We use the same methods and the same tools as we had in March 2020 and we fail to adapt and change when covid adapts and changes. I do not think there is anything to be proud of.”