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The trans-Tasman ‘travel bubble’ – it’s a prospect that keeps frothing up, only to be periodically punctured – but this time New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is pushing the concept, saying trans-Tasman air travel may be possible before Christmas.

Ardern said travel between New Zealand and some states of Australia could happen before the end of this year, under a new ‘hot spot’ approach.

Travel between the two countries has been very difficult since early this year, with air services hugely curtailed, mandatory quarantine on both sides of the Tasman, and in Australia’s case, a ban on leaving the country.

But now Victoria is getting its Covid-19 outbreak under control (only five new cases yesterday, lowest in over five months); Western Australia has gone months with no community transmission; some other states are pretty much clear of the coronavirus. New South Wales reported no new cases yesterday or the day before, the best results since early June.

Ardern told the NZ ‘Breakfast’ TV news program yesterday it was “possible” state-by-state trans-Tasman travel bubbles could be created by Christmas, under the new ‘hot spot’ approach being developed by Australia. Such a plan might see Australians travelling interstate and to New Zealand, from regions not designated ‘hot spots’.

There is speculation a ‘hot spot’ could be defined as a region or state with more than 30 cases of community transmission within 10 days.

The Big Dog of Tirau, a lesser-known New Zealand attraction. Photo © Peter Needham

Asked if such ‘travel bubbles’ could happen before Christmas, Ardern replied: “It is possible, what we’d need to be assured of is when Australia is saying they have a hotspot, that the border around that hotspot means that people aren’t able to travel into the states where we are engaging with, with trans-Tasman travel.”

Australia’s tourism minister, Simon Birmingham, says he hopes people will be able to travel freely to and from New Zealand by the end of the year.

“Ultimately, whether New Zealand opens up to Australia will be a matter for New Zealand,” Birmingham told Nine Network. New Zealand reported two new coronavirus cases on Sunday.

So will the bubble happen?

There are 87 days to Christmas. (Not shopping days, just days.) To get any trans-Tasman bubble up and running in that time frame would, firstly, need Australia to let people out of the country. At the moment, no-one can leave Australia without an exemption permit.

A ‘bubble’ would also require the compulsory two-week hotel quarantine period (on both sides of the Tasman) to be wound down or dropped. The current rules add one month in quarantine and about $6000 to the cost of a trip, all up. Who wants that?

Trans-Tasman air services are in hibernation and cannot be simply switched back on. Thousands of airline staff have been stood down. Qantas is concentrating on domestic flying. As if to symbolise that, the airline’s international flagship, the Airbus A380, has just made its final flight for at least the next three years. The last Qantas operating A380 flew from Dresden in Germany to Victorville on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California, where it will enter a state of deep and dry storage.

All quiet on the Tasman front. This image from FlightRadar24 yesterday afternoon shows the only trans-Tasman activity then was a single cargo flight (a Boeing 767 operated by DHL) heading from Auckland to Sydney


On the other side of the Tasman, meanwhile, Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran recently all but dismissed any prospect of air travel this year between Australia and New Zealand.

Foran said a week ago: “I certainly do not believe we will see anything across the Tasman this calendar year,” adding, “It’s hard to believe it would be before March next year and could well be longer.”

Was Foran being unduly pessimistic? As with the potential level of airfares, it’s a matter of wait and see. There’s plenty of pent-up demand to travel the route in both directions, to put it mildly.

Written by Peter Needham