New Zealand’s arrivals halls were filled with tears, hugs, laughter, and children’s shouts as New Zealand borders reopen and its isolation requirements lifted.
“I’ve been waiting six months for this moment,” says Steve, 72, who was waiting for his fiancee, Karin, to arrive from Australia. “I’m over the moon,” he said. “I feel a bit shaky.”
Steve claimed he had cleaned their motorhome from top to bottom, complete with karaoke machine, in preparation for a trip around New Zealand to see their friends and family. “We’ve been talking on the phone for five hours a day to keep our sanity that way,” says Steve. “It’s been very hard.”
The arrival terminals at New Zealand’s international airports have been deserted for nearly two years. Apart from a brief travel bubble with Australia, the country’s borders have been closed, with those who were fortunate enough to gain entry whisked away to government-run isolation and quarantine facilities for a costly two weeks in a hotel room.
For the first time since March 2020, flights full of New Zealanders touched down on Thursday without any isolation or quarantine requirements, signaling the end of that era for returning citizens.
The happiness of a reunion was tempered by sadness for others. Tania Fitzhenry, who was crying, said, “I’m waiting for my brother and his new bride.” “We’re trying to get back down to Huntly in time for him to see our dad.”
The family has been waiting for border restrictions to be lifted for a long time so that her brother could return and say his goodbyes to their sick father. “It feels like forever,” she says. “I think Dad’s been waiting all week. I hope to God, please hold on, he’s just got to hold on a couple more hours. Up until last night we were saying, dad, it’s OK to let go – but then [it became] Craig’s close enough now, you’ve got to hold on.”
Previously derailed, now New Zealand borders reopen
The arrival of Omicron derailed New Zealand’s initial staged border reopening plan, which was first announced in November. In February, the government revived its plans to reopen the border, with the caveat that travelers must still self-isolate for 10 days. That requirement was dropped this week, as the country’s Covid transmission rates soared to some of the highest in the world, and cases in the community far outnumbered those at the border, and entry dates for New Zealanders around the world were pushed forward.
It marks the end of a long and arduous journey for some New Zealanders. Many people have been separated from their families, unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones, missing family milestones, violating visa requirements, or being forced to overstay their visas.
In a statement, Justine Kirby of Grounded Kiwis, a group that advocates for New Zealanders stranded overseas, said, “People in this group have waited so long for this.”
“[There are] many for whom this has come too late. And it’s also deeply personal for me: I haven’t seen any family members for almost four years now,” she said. After the announcement, “I called Mum and, for the first time since early 2020, we started to make some travel plans together. Lots of happy tears.”
On Monday, the border opened to New Zealanders and eligible travellers arriving from Australia, and on Friday, it will open to the rest of the country. In the coming months, the Cabinet will consider when tourists and other visitors can return.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that vaccinated travelers will no longer be required to self-isolate beginning on Thursday, but will still be required to take a Covid-19 test upon arrival and on days five and six. If the traveller tests positive for the virus, they must self-isolate, as New Zealanders are required to do. Travelers who haven’t been vaccinated will still be held in a controlled environment.