Ardern sounds caution over Pacific travel "bubble"

By Sapeer Mayron 05 May 2020, 11:30PM

New Zealand and Australia are holding a serious conversation about a ‘trans-Tasman bubble’ arrangement that would see the two countries opening their borders to each other, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joining Australia’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The idea has raised questions about whether the Pacific, especially COVID-19 free islands, would be included in any such arrangement.

In her daily press conference on Monday, Ms. Ardern told reporters that it’s a conversation she would need to have directly with Pacific Island leaders.

“At the moment we are focussed on Australia, but it is fair to say that there would be obviously particular advantages for our Pacific Island neighbours,” she said. 

“But that’s a conversation we’d need to have directly with them; there is huge risk if COVID finds its way into Pacific island nations that have been untouched by COVID. So I would want us to act cautiously, and in unison with the leaders of those countries.”

And following the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Ms. Arden said New Zealand would have to be assured no cases would be transmitted from Australia.

Any travel agreement would not require two week quarantine periods on either side, she added, and could exclude some states or territories with outbreaks of the virus.

Cabinet will release an official statement this afternoon on the details of the discussion. 

President of the Samoa Hotels Association (S.H.A.) Tupai Saleimoa Va’a said for the sake of the struggling tourism industry he would completely back Samoa joining such an arrangement. 

“Of course, there are a lot of things that need to happen before it does but we would fully support any kind of arrangement like that.

“It’s a great way for our neighbours, especially our main partners New Zealand and Australia to help Samoa.”

But with Samoa eager to retain its COVID-19 free status, Tupai said he doubts there will be regular movement to Samoa anytime soon.

New Zealand currently has 184 active cases of COVID-19 and on Monday 4 May reported no new cases, the first time this has happened since the epidemic peaked and began to fall 1,302 people have recovered from the virus so far. 

In Australia there are 996 active cases and 5,732 people have recovered, as of 4 May, and both countries are showing promisingly flat epidemic curves.

“The safety of the country is the most important part,” Tupai said.

With New Zealand looking to close nearly all its COVID-19 clusters sooner than Australia, he suggested perhaps more travel between the region and New Zealand would be a better place to start, then look at including Australia later.

“There is no denying that our tourism industry has taken a huge hit, and many businesses are on their way down or going to be out of business in the next couple of months.

“An initiative like that would be greatly welcomed by the industry and we would support it immensely.”

Under the current state of emergency orders, the Government has approved for flights between Auckland and American Samoa to resume on a limited and conditional basis.

People wanting to travel to Samoa must be either returning residents and students with returning tickets; with expired travel permits, needing essential services or “any other special and relevant ground for travel to Samoa,” according to the orders approved on 30 April.

Passengers must have taken a COVID-19 test three days before leaving for Samoa, have been quarantined in New Zealand or American Samoa for two weeks before departure and will consent to quarantining for two weeks on arrival. 

Beyond opening up to Australia and New Zealand, Tupai said he hopes the Pacific Island states will keep talking about using the region's airlines to better connect the region. 

With more codeshare and interlining agreements, flights between the French territories and the South Pacific could become a possibility, for example.

With Fiji being the main gateway out of Samoa and still having several positive COVID-19 cases, Tupai said he is not sure when the route would reopen. 

Meanwhile the Samoa Tourism Authority and S.H.A. are working together on making tourism more accessible to the domestic market, but with rampant unemployment and job losses across the country their work has not been easy.

And beyond dropping prices on hotel rooms, there is not a lot that can be done to stimulate domestic tourism, Tupai said.

“We understand everybody’s priority is towards their family and keeping their family safe, and fed.

“Our economy needs our support and the only way we can do that is to support ourselves so we are pushing immensely to our local market to utilise our facilities, but it depends solely on disposable income from individual households.”

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi and the Samoa Tourism Authority have been approached for comment.


By Sapeer Mayron 05 May 2020, 11:30PM

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