The country will reopen its borders to Cook Islanders and work permit holders in two weeks, the Prime Minister announced last night.
From June 19, Cook Islanders and work permit holders who have been in New Zealand for the past 30 days and want to return home, or take up or resume employment, will be eligible. They will not need to go into quarantine.
Officials are also working to enable the return of those travelling from outside New Zealand, like work permit holders stranded in Austalia and Philippines.
Tourism and business operators are hailing that as a step in the right direction – and especially welcome Henry Puna’s further hope to reopen to all Kiwi tourists when New Zealand lowers its lockdown status to level 1.
The Prime Minister said they were working alongside New Zealand officials to set in place travel opportunities for other New Zealand citizens in the near future.
New Zealand officials now say Cook Islands and Niue could join Australia in a safe travel bubble with New Zealand – the first such travel bubble in the world.
Last night, John and Julia Evans hailed the news. “That's really good news for our family, we’re obviously been very keen to get home,” John Evans said.
The couple, their son Orlan and newborn baby daughter Nova-Jack Teoukura have been stuck in Christchurch since Julia gave birth in lockdown.
“I'm currently on the way to taking our oldest son to school tutoring lessons, as we’ve been unsure when we can get him back to school.”
In an interview with New Zealand’s Newshub, Puna noted that there was no community transmission in New Zealand, meaning there was no risk and Cook Islands should be treated a bit like a domestic flight.
“We feel that we are part of New Zealand, we are New Zealanders and we're part of your domestic travel market.”
Sue Fletcher-Vea, chair of the Tourism Industry Council, acknowledged the easing of border restrictions for Cook Islanders and permit holders to return home without quarantine.
“It is a step towards opening borders to tourism to New Zealanders. We look forward to both Cook Islands and New Zealand governments making this a priority – in the safest way possible – in order to restart tourism and lead the country into the recovery phase.”
Private Sector Taskforce chairman Fletcher Melvin said Puna’s announcement was good news. By first allowing Cook Islands and work permit holders in New Zealand, the country could put in place measures like contact-tracing protocols – before opening the borders to tourists.
“I think it demonstrates our government has reacted well each time New Zealand has changed its level and we are confident government will also change its status when New Zealand gets to level 1.”
“It’s encouraging to see Cook Islands government proactively contacting New Zealand government and the private sector here, keeping in mind things are under control and I think we are heading in right direction.”
New Zealand’s director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said Cook Islands and Niue could be the first countries in the region Kiwis are able to visit. Asked whether he would be comfortable with flights to and from the Cook Islands under level 1, Dr Bloomfield said: “That’s something we will definitely look at.”
There were two or three Pacific countries whose economies were dependent on tourism, and there were “benefits both ways for us to be looking at opening up a bubble”, he said.
“However, the government’s focus at present remains on the trans-Tasman bubble with Australia.”
Henry Puna, in his announcement last night, paid tribute to New Zealand for making excellent progress in the battle against Covid-19.
The epidemiology resulting from the public health measures in New Zealand presented Cook Islands with further opportunities to ease restrictions.
However Puna also warned, “we are reminded that Covid-19 is new, just 5 months old, and we do not fully understand its behaviour”.
“Government is working in a fluid environment based on the current best evidence available, while we await a vaccine or proven treatment. Efforts in this space will require considerable cooperation, and a degree of patience.
“But we look forward to positive collaboration with the community, our private sector partners and agencies in the weeks ahead, as we determine how best to restore and reinvigorate, our social and economic well-being.”