Stepping foot on-board one of the transtasman bubble flights from Sydney to Wellington was a cause for celebration for news.com.au’s Vanessa Brown. But, she writes, the journey home was a different story.
A year in the making, it was the flight Australia was itching for.
After the Federal Government closed international borders in March as a safety measure at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, being landlocked sent most of us into wanderlust overdrive.
The guessing game of which destination would open first kept our love of overseas travel alive. But local outbreaks both here and abroad swiftly snapped us back to the reality that travelling overseas again will be many months if not years in the making.
But then, on April 6, a glimpse of pre-pandemic reality made a welcome return.
After almost 400 days of overseas border closures we – along with our neighbours across the ditch – were thrown a bone.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave us a transtasman travel bubble launch date, meaning Australians – and New Zealanders – could finally dust off their passports and fly across the ditch back and forth without having to enter hotel quarantine.
On Monday, April 19, I was among one of the first Australians to step foot on a transtasman “green zone flight” – which essentially means everyone on board (including the crew) had only been in Australia (or New Zealand) for the past two weeks prior to flying.
The vibe was as expected. Emotions and excitement for what awaited on the other side of the Tasman ran high. Families had been separated for months if not years, and were finally at the home stretch to be reunited again.
And for those who were just busting to break outside of Australia’s borders, well, what better place to visit first than the safety and serenity of our neighbouring nation.
Stepping foot on the first flight from Sydney to Wellington, our Air New Zealand flight was pumping.
Rows were full, champagne was flowing (albeit into plastic cups), and the cheers and applause as we descended into New Zealand’s capital were deafening.
Within the first 24 hours of visiting Wellington, there was a real buzz about having the Aussie accent fill the streets once again.
“OMG you’re from Sydney … and you’re here?!,” one local shop assistant squealed after asking about my day.
“That’s so exciting … can I give you a hug,” her co-worker followed before pulling me in.
Sitting down for dinner at local standout Charley Noble, a waitress beamed after hearing about our first flight into her city.
“Gosh we are so pumped to have Australians back,” she smiled. “We have missed you guys!”
But as I ventured through the city, and even into the townships abroad, a hidden truth became apparent.
The desperation to travel across the Tasman was not as mutual as I’d expected. In fact, within days of the bubble opening, Air New Zealand has already cut six flights this week after the demand for travel into Australia was lower than imagined.
While bookings spiked after Ardern announced the bubble, demand has since cooled now that family members and friends have slowly become reunited.
“I’ll give the bubble a few months before I head over,” the same waitress replied when I asked if she had plans on a holiday down under.
“Nah, I have no real plans on heading there just yet … we will see what happens,” a bartender in nearby Martinborough fired back, adding he had concerns over possible border closures.
Air NZ CEO Greg Foran said the response, albeit good, has been slightly lower than expected.
“[Demand] has been pretty much where we wanted it to be. So lots of pent up demand on that first day back on Monday and a little bit more moderate through the week,” he said on Friday.
“We have actually pulled a few [flights], so we had to take a bit of a shot in the dark as to how many [flights] are going to be used because the booking window is so short. A lot of people really didn’t start booking until a week ago.”
Returning from Wellington late on a Thursday afternoon and in the first week of New Zealand’s school holidays, I made an effort to arrive to the international airport early to beat what I expected would be chaos.
But instead, the terminal remained relatively calm. And my flight to Sydney? Well, everyone had a row to themselves.
Accommodation Association CEO Julie White told The AM Show that many potential travellers were still wary about making the trip. And given Australia’s response to internal border closures, it actually comes at no surprise.
“When the announcement [came out], we had a rush of bookings into New Zealand. However, it dried up really quickly – within a week the bookings stopped. We are also hearing from both sides that flight schedules are starting to be reduced in May,” she said.
“Opening the border is excellent but it’s not going to be the silver bullet, so the government still needs to manage the health crisis and economic crisis.
“We are already seeing upward prices from supply chains, so that’s an early indicator of inflationary pressures, so we need to keep an eye on the economy as well as get trying to get more Australians over to New Zealand.”
While the corridor is a reason for hope for both the aviation and tourism industry on both sides of the Tasman, reopening travel – even in a bubble – is clearly not easy.
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