Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has revealed the Government is working towards a May commencement date for a Cook Islands travel bubble.
Ardern held a press conference in Auckland on Friday alongside her Cook Islands counterpart Mark Brown, in what was her first press conference with another world leader since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
"I want to acknowledge that the Cook Islands has done a huge amount to keep COVID out very successfully," Ardern said, in recognition of the Cooks being the first country to secure quarantine-free one-way travel with New Zealand.
"New Zealand has provided support to help achieve that status, but ultimately it would not have been achieved without the initiative of the Cook Island people and Government themselves."
Ardern acknowledged the Cook Islands' success in managing COVID-19 has been "hard won and no question it's come at a price", alluding to the huge loss of tourism income.
"We discussed that today," she said. "We've agreed to continue to progress the remaining work to ensure safe two-way quarantine-free travel. There has been significant work with preparedness, and we are currently working in earnest towards a May commencement."
Ardern said Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has advised that beginning COVID-19 vaccinations will add to the safe opening of quarantine-free travel with the Cooks.
"Cabinet will be working with our Cook Island counterparts to expedite that joint vaccination plan over the coming weeks," Ardern said.
The Government recently reprioritised its development assistance budget to make available $20 million in additional support for the Cook Islands this financial year.
The Government is also committed to offering vaccines to the Cooks when they are available. In December, $75 million was committed to provide vaccine support to the Pacific and global initatives.
Brown said it was a "great honour" to be welcomed as the first state visit since the pandemic began. He said the Cooks were "grateful" to be the first country New Zealand allowed to enter without going into mandatory quarantine.
"I think it's the work our two countries have done over the last 12 months with the emergence of COVID that has helped protect our country and kept our country COVID-free," Brown said.
"The protective measures that New Zealand imposed has also provided protection for our country, and for that we are very thankful, Prime Minister," he said to Ardern.
But Brown also touched on how difficult it's been for the Cooks.
"The hard work we've done in protecting ourselves is now done. We now look, like New Zealand, to the recovery - how as a nation are we going to recover from the impacts that the closure of our borders has had on our businesses?" he asked.
"We are hopeful that our recovery will come sooner rather than later. For a country that is totally reliant on tourism - up to 70 percent of GDP - this has had a significant impact on our economy. It's declined 20 percent in the same period that New Zealand's economy has declined by 2.9 percent.
"I know that by working with our closest partner New Zealand, we will be able to find a pathway to recovery, and help those people that are struggling to get back on their feet."
National MP Chris Bishop expressed dismay at how long it's taking for the Government to form a travel bubble with the Cooks, since it was supposed to be up and running in the first quarter of 2021.
"This is hopeless," Bishop wrote on Twitter. "They announced in December it was meant to start in first quarter. There are Cook Islands businesses about to go under."
The Government will announce on April 6 when it plans to commence a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia.