10 Aug 2020

Covid-19: NZ travel bubble with Cook Islands could be in place by end of year - Ardern

6:47 pm on 10 August 2020

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern says she expects an update in the next two weeks on the timing of a Cook Islands and New Zealand travel bubble.

Watch the conference here:

In a press conference this afternoon, Ardern says Cabinet considered a draft text for the basis of an agreement.

The next phase will be a verification phase on both sides within the next 10 days, she says.

She says the draft text is nearing its conclusion and they're hoping the travel bubble will be in place before the end of the year.

Two factors are the maritime and aviation border, and that will be a "significant part" of the verification phase, she says.

"Those who would legally be able to be in New Zealand would be eligible but if they're not New Zealand citizens, they may need to go through an extra phase," she says, citing visa processes on the Cook Islands.

"I expect in the next 10 days or so undertaking that on-the-ground verification process ... it is not a simple exercise and it is one where we are exercising caution."

"The whole point of establishing this regime is the assurance that both the Cook Islands and New Zealand are considered to be Covid-free, but that doesn't mean we won't have extra stages of assurance."

Ardern says New Zealand is still waiting on Niue to be ready for a potential travel bubble but at the moment the plan is just for the Cook Islands.

"We have to base this on a public health decision which is what we're doing."

Health declarations are the kind of initiatives being looked at as extra layers of assurance at the border for travellers, she says.

"We have already been supporting the Cook Islands through this period, we are moving as quickly as we safely can on these arrangements... we are keeping up that dialogue with the Cook Islands administration."

She says the foundation work for a trans-Tasman travel arrangement is also still under way but that it is still a way off.

"Those airports that might be part of those arrangements will need to have the sign off from health that they can undertake quarantine-free travel safely ... we will need to make sure that we're assured that it's safe."

Ardern says the Cook Islands utilises New Zealand's Covid-19 lab testing capacity.

Talking about a trans-Tasman bubble, she says quarantine-free travel with others at this stage is not a reality for now.

"I think there's a really good understanding within our own domestic tourism industry it's beneficial for our domestic tourism operators if we have New Zealanders travelling and enjoying New Zealand, but at the same time there's absolute understanding that if all the public health measures are in place, protecting New Zealand's domestic tourism industry is not a reason to stop people with NZ passports being able to travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand."

Business groups and some Pacific countries, including the Cook Islands, have been urging the New Zealand government to open travel with some parts of the region.

The Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce said the country risked losing many young people to New Zealand if a safe travel corridor was not opened soon.

Chamber president Fletcher Melvin said tourism accounted for 85 percent of the Cook Islands GDP last year, an industry that had evaporated with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, both Auckland and Wellington airports last week said they had sketched out their plans for an international travel bubble should the government announce one.

Cooks Islands businesses 'very, very worried'

Cook Islands Tourism Industry Committee president Lianna Scott said the announcement was some small progress, but overall disappointing.

"We've been waiting some time for an indication of a date, so yet another delay does still carry anxiety for businesses here in the island."

Scott, who also manages the Muri Beach Club Hotel in Rarotonga, said many businesses were "very, very worried" they would have to close their doors when the wage subsidy ran out at the end of September.

She acknowledged the need to open the border safely, but said New Zealand authorities were being "overly-cautious".

"There just doesn't seem to be any real reasons why the borders should remain closed," Scott said.

"We are Covid-free. We acted just as quickly as New Zealand acted for the very reason to have this ability to have a bubble."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs