New Zealand has begun welcoming back tourists from more than 50 countries including Britain, the US, Canada and Japan for the first time in more than two years.
Flights bringing in tourists began landing at Auckland airport early on Monday morning, coming in direct from places including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.
The tourist hotspot has finally dropped most of its remaining pandemic border restrictions after its strict COVID policies allowed it to escape the worst of the virus – keeping cases and deaths relatively low compared to many other countries.
Renowned for its breath-taking scenery and adventure tourism offerings such as bungy jumping and skiing, New Zealand welcomed more than three million tourists each year before the pandemic struck.
Tourism had previously accounted for around 20% of New Zealand’s foreign income and more than 5% of the country’s overall economy.
But international tourism stopped altogether in early 2020 after New Zealand imposed some of the world’s toughest border restrictions due to the global virus outbreak.
The border rules remained in place as Jacinda Ardern’s government initially pursued an elimination strategy before enforcing measures to tightly control the spread of the virus.
The easing of restrictions came after the spread of Omicron as well as the vaccinations of more than 80% of the country’s five million population.
Three weeks ago, New Zealand reopened to tourists from Australia, and on Monday to about 60 visa-waiver countries, including much of Europe.
The majority of travellers from India, China and other non-waiver countries are still not allowed to enter.
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Before arriving in New Zealand, tourists need to provide proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test.
“Today is a day to celebrate, and is a big moment in our reconnection with the world,” said tourism minister Stuart Nash.
The border reopening will help boost tourism ahead of New Zealand’s upcoming ski season. But the real test of how much the tourism industry rebounds will come in December, when the peak summer season begins in the Southern Hemisphere nation.