New Zealand should create travel bubble with Pacific before Australia - health expert

There are growing calls for the Government to establish a travel bubble with the Pacific before Australia, with one public health expert saying it's a "no-brainer". 

Business operators in Niue, the Cook Islands and Fiji have a simple message - their destinations remain a safer option.

In Northland's Tutukaka, the team from dive company Niue Blue has loaded up three shipping containers with gas canisters, household goods and dive boats.

Owners Jeroen Jongejans and Kate Malcolm purchased the company just before COVID-19 abruptly forced the borders to close.

They haven't been able to send key items or staff to Niue, and much of the season has been ruined.

Jongejans believes a Pacific bubble should come before a trans-Tasman one.

"I think the Pacific is probably further ahead than Australia, considering the nil cases we've had in a number of Pacific islands like Rarotonga (in the Cook Islands) and Niue. It's obviously a safer bet."

In the Cook Islands, tourism operators like Tata Crocombe, who runs three resorts, says occupancy rates at his sites went from 80 percent to zero in the space of a day.

Crocombe says the Cook Islands and New Zealand should be able to reopen quicker than any two other destinations, and he wants to see flights resume within a week.

"We have zero cases. Australia doesn't have zero cases," he says.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says the Government is aware the Cook Islands relies on tourism, and that they're in a state of "serious economic peril".

However, when asked why parts of the Pacific won't reopen to Kiwi visitors before Australia, Peters indicated he was worried about COVID-19 being exported to the islands.

"The last thing we want to do is imperil those populations".

However, Dr Collin Tukuitonga from Auckland University's Faculty of Health and Medicine says while we can never say never, the risk of introducing the virus at this point in time "is remote".

"I describe it as near zero," Dr Tukuitonga told Newshub.

Tony Whitton from Fiji's Rosie Travel Group says even though Fiji has had 18 confirmed cases, the country hasn't had a new case in over a month.

He says if travel between New Zealand and Fiji doesn't start soon, the economic and social impact "will be devastating".

He says they can't hide in fear on the chance cases could surge. Whitton says 70,000 families in Fiji who depend on tourism are currently on leave without pay, on reduced hours, or have been laid off.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has provided tens of millions of dollars in aid to help Pacific partners fight COVID-19, but Whitton says the "biggest aid New Zealand can provide is the tourism dollar".

The Ministry says "high level" talks are continuing with "some" Pacific nations, although it won't say who exactly has expressed an interest to restart travel or when exactly this could happen.

Dr Tukuitonga says restarting travel between New Zealand and some Pacific nations is good for struggling Pacific economies, and importantly, for the mental health of those communities. He says it's a "no-brainer" and should come before any travel bubble is established with Australia.