Emotions ran high Monday as excited passengers set off on the first flights to take advantage of a quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, allowing families split by the pandemic to finally reunite.
“(I’ll) yell, scream cry, hug, kiss, (feel) happy – all of these emotions at once,” Denise O’Donoghue, 63, told AFP at Sydney airport as she prepared to board her flight.
The arrangement means that for the first time in almost 400 days passengers can fly across the Tasman Sea without undergoing mandatory Covid-19 quarantine when they arrive.
“It’s a very big day and exciting for families and friends,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who hailed the success of both countries in containing the virus as a key factor in allowing the travel corridor.
Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists before the pandemic, accounting for about 1.5 million arrivals or 40% of total visitors in 2019.
The bubble’s opening received saturation coverage from media in both countries, with live television reporting from airports providing regular updates on the progress of flights.
On a grass embankment at the foot of Wellington Airport’s runway, the words “WELCOME WHANAU” (family) were spelled out in giant letters.
Lorraine Wratt, a New Zealander stranded by the pandemic while visiting family in Australia, told AFP it was “wonderful” to be able to travel again.
“We’re very excited to be heading back home but we’re gonna miss our family (in Australia) big time,” she said.
“We came to Australia on Dec 11 to spend Christmas with our children… planning to go back in February, it’s been a bit of a nightmare.”
Australia is home to hundreds of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders and before coronavirus many regularly shuttled back and forth across the Tasman on three-hour flights.
O’Donoghue said the travel bubble’s opening made her feel the world was returning to some sort of normality.
“I’ll be going back, they’ll be coming over, we’ll just be back to normal,” she said.
“What normal’s going to be from now on I don’t know, but I’m just really, really excited today.”
Air New Zealand executive Craig Suckling said the atmosphere at Sydney airport before departure was electric.
“It was quite the emotional rollercoaster here in Sydney,” he said.
“The check-in area was a hive of activity and at the boarding gate, customers were eager to get on.”
The airline’s chief executive Greg Foran said it was also a “monumental” day for those involved in the hard-hit tourism industry.
“(It’s) a real turning point for the airline. It’s day one of our revival,” he said.