New Zealand has taken another baby step towards re-opening to the world, with PM Jacinda Ardern announcing quarantine-free travel to the Cook Islands “this year”.
Like Australia, NZ is currently quarantining all international arrivals for a fortnight in an attempt to beat back COVID-19.
The Cook Islands has not recorded a case of the deadly virus through the pandemic, and New Zealand has eliminated local transmission.
Ms Ardern said NZ officials will head to the Cook Islands, and vice versa, “within the next 10 days” to verify travel procedures and clear a path.
“We haven’t put a timeframe around the reopening at this stage, though our expectation is that it would be in place before the end of the year,” Ms Ardern said.
The postcard-perfect Cook Islands is a former NZ colony which retains close ties with Wellington.
Cook Islands PM Henry Puna closed all air and sea borders in March, and allowed some Cook Islands residents in NZ to return from June.
He said the deal would balance “economic and social needs with the importance of maintaining strong public health efforts in both our countries”.
“We look forward to once again welcoming family and visitors from New Zealand without the restriction of quarantine on both ends,” Mr Puna said.
Ms Ardern has been criticised for her lack of haste in resuming ties with Cook Islands.
She has placed public health considerations above economic concerns through the pandemic, saying she has no desire to put NZ’s “hard-won gains” at risk by re-opening with countries ahead of time.
“This is not a simple exercise. This is one where we are exercising that caution,” she said.
“The last thing anyone wants us to reopen travel only to have it closed down because it hasn’t been done properly.
“I feel a duty of responsibility on both sides to make sure whatever we do, that we make sure it lasts and it’s safe.”
Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama, who on Sunday congratulated NZ for joining Fiji as countries to enjoy 100 days without community transmission, has called for a “Bula Bubble” but Ms Ardern said it wasn’t a priority.
“At this stage we are entirely focused on Realm countries. That includes the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau being a different set of circumstance with the only access route is via Samoa,” she said.
Asked if quarantine-free travel with Australia would be possible this year, Ms Ardern sounded downbeat.
“We are still undertaking the work, the foundational work for the trans-Tasman travel arrangements but obviously that is going to be some time off,” she said.
As part of the agreement, the Cook Islands will not be able to provide quarantine-free travel to countries where COVID-19 remains in the community.