Bubble hopes of getting New Zealand business flying again

3:47 pm on 9 April 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The travel bubble is the best good news story for a long time, the government has another go at Auckland light rail and Kiri Allan faces the "fight of her life".

Airplane in the sky at sunrise

Tourism operators are hoping to go from surviving to thriving. Photo: 123RF

"Gidday mate!" The Herald's headline on Wednesday said it all. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement the previous day that trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel would start on April 19 was the best good news story in a long time.

Definitely the best since the pandemic struck more than a year ago, and media coverage reflected that. "Have bubble, will travel" said Stuff, reporting on an Australian woman Avalon Kent who hadn't seen her family since December 2019 and booked her flights moments after the announcement.

"Pack your bags, book your flight," RNZ's Jane Patterson wrote, reporting that in 2019 Australians made up 40 per cent of tourists who spent $2 billion.

Tourist operators applauded and the Herald quoted Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran saying resuming trans-Tasman flying would mark the move from the "survivor" phase to the "recovery" stage for the airline, which made close to a third of its revenue from the Tasman and Pacific Island routes.

Amid this euphoria a big question remained. How many will come? At the prime minister's press conference an Australian correspondent said there were 25 million people in his country and they loved to travel. What was she going to do to make sure they arrived, he asked. Ardern said the most important thing was that New Zealand was a safe place for them to bring their families. And the ski season was about to start, she added.

On Wednesday morning she became New Zealand's top tourism promoter, talking directly to Australians through a series of media interviews.

By the end of the week Queenstown resorts were reporting a booking surge.

It wasn't easy to be critical this week but opposition parties did their best. "It's how the Australian states have been working for months and there is no excuse for New Zealand being so late to join," said National's leader Judith Collins.

Collins then told Morning Report there was no reason Pacific nations couldn't form part of the bubble now. She said a bubble with Australia had been unnecessarily put off and that shouldn't be repeated with safe Pacific nations.

National leader Judith Collins  17/02/21

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

She did say how delighted she was about the border with Australia finally being opened and the lifeline it had thrown to the tourism industry.

ACT leader David Seymour's response was similar. The government was "long on self-congratulation but late on delivery... Jacinda Ardern couldn't treat us like lucky little prisoners any longer," he said.

Ardern's response to complaints about the time it had taken was the same one she has given throughout - better to be safe than sorry. "As much as I know that our tourism cities and towns really want the return of Australians, I know they equally do not want the return of Covid," she said. "If we don't get this right they could have the worst of both worlds."

Getting it right has involved intense planning for what is called 'green zone' travel. People coming from Australia will not have any contact with arrivals from anywhere else.

Ardern said a face-to-face meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was being arranged. Dates were being discussed and she looked forward to taking him somewhere that previously had high levels of international tourism.

You could put money on Queenstown.

The government's other big announcement was made just before the Easter break - it's having another go at Auckland Light Rail.

Building the link from the airport to the city centre was one of Labour's flagship promises in the 2017 election campaign. Rival bids for the $4.4 billion project came in from NZTA and a consortium of the NZ Super Fund and a Canadian pension fund.

The government favoured the consortium's bid but the project was sunk by NZ First. Winston Peters said it could cost up to $15 billion and cause a decade of chaos.

Transport Minister Michael Wood announced the fresh start exercise, saying Aucklanders were not sufficiently involved during previous planning. A new establishment unit would be tasked with getting it back on track, and it has been given six months to do that.

Wood said when the government received advice from the unit at the end of the year it would make decisions on route, mode and delivery entity. It would also provide information for the public about the cost and timeframes.

"I know some would have liked me to announce a shovel-ready project today, but I also want to be absolutely certain that the plan we move forward with is the right one," Wood said.

The following day Ardern would not rule out private investment and said it was too soon to say how much it would cost. Asked whether the entire project would be funded by central government, she replied: "To that I'm not giving you a response to right now."

National's transport spokesman, Michael Woodhouse, said the government's announcement was typical. "Big talk but useless on delivery."

There was sad news from Kiritapu Allan this week when the cabinet minister revealed she had been diagnosed with stage-3 cervical cancer.

Kiri Allan has revealed she has been diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer.

Kiri Allan has revealed she has been diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer. Photo: Facebook/Kiri Allan

The emergency management and conservation minister said in a Facebook post her symptoms were being investigated when the earthquakes struck off the coast and a tsunami warning was issued.

Allan fronted the press conferences, knowing a growth had been found which a few days later was diagnosed as stage three cancer, She then knew she was "in for the fight of my life".

Ardern said she was gutted by the news, while Collins praised Allan's bravery in going public with the details. "The fact that she had to deal with civil defence issues, while she knew this was all happening, really does speak volumes about her dedication and courage," National's leader said.

Former National MP Nikki Kaye, who fought breast cancer, said her heart went out to Allan. "Kiri is a fighter. I know lots of people will be sending their love and support from Parliament and around New Zealand," she said. "The country will get in behind her."

Allan's portfolios are being looked after by other ministers while she is away for treatment.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire

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