Over 1000 seasonal workers from Vanuatu stranded in New Zealand will finally return home this week, with the first flight having departed Christchurch earlier on Friday just after 7am.
The repatriation flights are a joint effort between the New Zealand and Vanuatu governments, as well as industry groups Summerfruit NZ, Horticulture NZ.
The Vanuatu nationals will be flown home by the Royal New Zealand Airforce Boeing 757 aircraft this week, in its biggest international airlift in 25 years.
Eight flights will be split between Christchurch Airport and Whenuapai Air Force Base in Auckland.
Nawala Narukase from Tanna Island said he was happy to be going home.
"I've been here during summer and I'm beyond winter now. I came here for six months and I'm beyond nine months."
He said he would quarantine for 14 days and then go home.
"If the borders are open, I'll be back again next season."
Summerfruit NZ acting chief executive Richard Palmer said 1000 people were allocated to eight Airforce flights. The workers did not have to pay for their repatriation.
"The mood I've had from employers [is that] all of their staff are delighted ... they are pleased to go home because they've been here, in many cases over seven months. But importantly, they've dealt with the Covid lockdown working in essential services in fruit production. Now it's well and truly time to go home.
"Obviously as the grip of winter descends on the country they are delighted to be going home."
He told Morning Report many workers were going back to villages struck by Cyclone Harold.
While the workers didn't have to test for COVID-19 before they left, they would have to complete the two-week quarantine period once in Vanuatu.
In a few months, the regions would suffer from a shortage of experienced workers, he said.
"Getting New Zealanders into work in the regions is a massive challenge for us. Our message to New Zealanders is there is plenty of work available in the regions and we'd be delighted to see you."
Thornhill Contracting South Island manager Alistair Mitchell said he had 21 ni-Vanuatu workers heading home today who had been in New Zealand since October 2019.
"When our summer work ran out, we had to re-train them into winter jobs on the vineyard such as pruning," he said.
"The sector relies on the RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) workers to fill the employer gap and we are very grateful for their hard work."
Mitchell said he was unsure what next summer would bring and whether COVID-19 border restrictions would make it challenging to bring RSE workers back into New Zealand.
"We are encouraging New Zealanders to step up and fill the jobs this coming summer."