New Zealand has been declared "back on the map" for international tourists with the border opening to vaccinated travellers from 60 visa waiver countries today.
It is the next step in the gradual opening of the border after it was slammed shut in March 2020 as part of the government's Covid-19 response.
Vaccinated Australians, New Zealand citizens, some visa holders and international students, and now vaccinated travellers from visa-waiver countries,can enter New Zealand and self test on arrival, without having to go through MIQ.
They will need a negative pre-departure test and two rapid antigen tests (RATs) during the first week, on specified days; some travellers from some Pacific Islands are exempt. Anyone testing positive will have to report it, isolate for seven days and get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
Minister of Tourism Stuart Nash has declared New Zealand is "back on the world map for international tourism and business travellers".
"The welcome mat is out for citizens of visa-waiver nations, who like Australians can now travel here without isolation if they are vaccinated and do a pre-departure and arrival test," he said.
"Thousands of passengers are touching down today on around 25 flights at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch international airports as New Zealand opens up further for business."
Today "marks a milestone for visitors from our key northern hemisphere markets in the USA, UK, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada and others, who can now jump on a plane to come here".
"Direct flights arrive today from places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, as well as airports closer to home in Australia, Nadi, and Rarotonga - many will be connecting flights bringing people from further afield."
At the moment there are about 33,000 arrivals each week, numbers that would now continue to rise, Nash said.
Tourism has been one of the hardest hit sectors and operators are looking forward to the larger numbers, and a boost to the bottom line after a tough couple of years.
Vivace Restaurant in Auckland's co-owner Mandy Lusk said the border closure meant losing international customers - 25 percent of her business.
While optimistic about their return, she feared it could be some time before the benefits were felt, expecting business from tourism to pick up later in the year.
"It gives us a little bit of hope I think, to be honest I'm not sure how much effect it will have to start with, we are still surrounded by hotels that aren't open yet, so there's not really anywhere for people to come and stay just yet," she told RNZ.
In Wellington, hospitality owner Jeremy Smith said it was a "double-edged sword" - the border opening to international visitors at a time when life was becoming more expensive here.
"With increasing inflation, increasing wage costs, our pricing is forced to go up and I'm a little concerned that New Zealand may be seen as a very expensive destination and may deter people who are doing their first trip."
Smith hoped the change would not only bring in international tourists, but also more workers: "the working holiday people and some of the international travellers - that will definitely help around some of our job shortages".
However, there are some who remain worried the reopening of the border exposes New Zealanders to new variants, and potentially a greater public health risk.
Over the weekend the Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed someone who had travelled from overseas to New Zealand had the BA.4 variant of Omicron - the first known detection of the variant in New Zealand.
"The person arrived in New Zealand from South Africa on 22 April, returned a positive RAT the following day and a positive PCR test on 24 April. Whole genome sequencing was undertaken as part of ongoing border surveillance for emerging variants and subsequently confirmed the BA.4 variant.
"The person followed all testing and reporting requirements, allowing this new sub-variant to be identified quickly, and has been isolating at home."
The MOH said the BA.4 had been reported in Southern Africa and Europe, and a case was reported in New South Wales a few days ago.
"The arrival of this sub-variant in New Zealand is not unexpected. At this stage, the public health settings already in place to manage other Omicron variants are assessed to be appropriate for managing BA.4 and no changes are required."
There was no evidence to date that BA.4 was more transmissible or causes more severe disease than other Omicron lineages, such as the BA.2 Omicron sub-variant that was causing the "vast majority" of infections in New Zealand, the MOH said.
In an open letter to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, published last week, 150 doctors and scientists called on the government to adopt a "mitigation strategy", including a more assertive mask policy, better filtration systems for schools and a push for high vaccination rates.
"Recurrent waves of infection caused by waning immunity, new variants, and the premature removal of public health controls, would lead to an over-burdened healthcare system that would struggle to provide even standard services," the letter said.
"The implications of continuing to allow poorly-mitigated transmission of Covid-19 in New Zealand are too great to ignore. The burden of long term illness and disability on individuals, whānau, and our health system of Covid and Long Covid will include effects on the cardiovascular, respiratory, neurological, endocrine, and immune systems," the letter concluded.
The government is working on a resurgence plan that could be activated if a variant arrives that was more transmissible or likely to put more people in hospital.