What is a travel bubble

On 5 May, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, did something not seen since the Second World War – she sat in on an Australian cabinet meeting. The meeting was, of course, virtual, Ms Ardern seated thousands of kilometres away in Wellington, but it was still a historic moment of cooperation in these otherwise isolated times.

She was invited to discuss a so-called ‘trans-Tasman travel bubble’ – an internationally shared quarantine zone that would allow the free exchange of trade and people between, and only between, Australia and New Zealand.

Both countries boast enviable records for controlling COVID-19: Australia’s track-and-trace regime has helped limit the death toll and New Zealand now has no active cases.

“If there’s any country in the world with whom we can reconnect first,” our prime minister, Scott Morrison, told reporters, “undoubtedly that’s New Zealand.”

Neither nation has yet set a timeline, but the ‘travel bubble’ idea has gained a good deal of global attention in recent weeks. The scheme relies on similar viral status, trust and shared protocol, but governments and travel agents alike need a halfway house – a safe first step to get flights flying and traders trading. If successful, other countries could be added to the bubble, and Ms Ardern has already floated the idea of including Pacific islands that are apparently virus-free.

Fiji declared itself COVID-19 on 5 June, while other Pacific nations, including Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tonga, have successfully kept the virus from their shores altogether.

But in a part of the world that is financially dependent on tourism and which imports much of its food, fuel and other vital supplies, travel lockdowns have hit Pacific economies especially hard.

Pilots on board
The idea of a trans-Tasman bubble received a major boost when pilots announced that they were on board with the plan.

Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) president Mark Sedgwick said pilots were backing an early opening of the trans-Tasman bubble to kickstart tourism, hospitality and aviation in Australia and New Zealand.

“Our priority is to get planes and pilots back in the air, which will enable people to start moving across the Tasman and around Australia when it is safe to do so,” Mr Sedgwick said.

“This is an essential first step in Australia’s economic recovery.”

Though the first to moot the plan internationally, Australia and New Zealand aren’t first to put it into practice. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania promptly followed the news with a travel bubble of their own, which came into force on 15 May.

The Baltic countries are united by a shared heritage, small populations, and a gratifyingly effective response to COVID-19, and agreed on the measures in a video call. Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas tweeted that it was a “big step towards life as normal,” while Lithuanian premier Saulius Skvernelis wrote in a Facebook post that “we trust each other’s healthcare systems”.

The world will be watching with interest. National lockdowns are starting to ease, and effective bubbles could provide a model for easing the international one.

Would you be willing to travel to New Zealand or are you more likely to explore Australia first?

– With PA

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