WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Wednesday her nation was “ready to welcome the world back” with most tourists allowed to return by May as the nation continues to ease its coronavirus restrictions.
The announcement bought forward the date that tourists from countries including the U.S., Canada, Britain and much of Europe can visit from the previously announced date of October.
International tourism used to account for about 20% of New Zealand’s foreign income and more than 5% of GDP.
But when the pandemic began, New Zealand enacted some of the world’s strictest border controls and tourism evaporated. The measures were initially credited with saving thousands of lives and allowed New Zealand to eliminate or contain several outbreaks.
But with the omicron variant now spreading throughout the country, the border restrictions have become largely irrelevant.
Ardern said the move would boost the economy.
“Closing our border was one of the first actions we took to stop COVID-19 over two years ago, and its reopening will spur our economic recovery throughout the remainder of the year,” she said.
Under the new timeline, tourists from Australia will be able to visit from April 12 and tourists from other visa-waiver countries can visit from May 1. Tourists from non-waiver countries — including India and China — will need to wait longer, unless they already have valid visitor visas.
Tourists must be vaccinated and test negative for the virus before leaving their home country and again after arriving in New Zealand.
“I know from visiting tourism operators, and talking to their staff, how tough these past two years have been,” Ardern said. “And not only because of the massive loss of tourism revenue, but because we lost something we derived so much of our identity from.”
New Zealand is renowned for its beautiful scenery and adrenalin-inducing adventure tourism. The announcement comes as a timely boost to ski fields trying to plan for the upcoming Southern Hemisphere winter.
“Tourism operators finally have confirmation they can get back to business,” said Ann-Marie Johnson, a spokesperson for Tourism Industry Aotearoa. “Tourism was the first industry to be affected by the pandemic and will be the last to recover. Tourism operators both large and small have made huge sacrifices but can now focus on rebuilding their businesses.”
Over the past couple of weeks, New Zealand has been reporting about 20,000 new virus cases each day, its biggest outbreak since the pandemic began. The nation’s COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday became the latest high-profile person to test positive.
But experts expect the omicron outbreak to fade quickly from its peak, as it has in many other countries.