Coronavirus: Tourism industry warns of 'three to five-year pathway' to recovery

The tourism industry is warning it could take up to five years for the sector to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With the country's borders effectively closed and aeroplanes around the world grounded, tourism operators have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. 

Thousands of jobs have already been slashed in the industry, with some warning that job losses could eventually reach 100,000 here.

"It's pretty tough," Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

"None of the usual adjectives work in the current situation for what's happened to the tourism industry but we're focused very much now on the recovery and how we come out of this."

Almost 400,000 jobs in the country depend on tourism, with the industry making up a massive part of the country's economy. 

Roberts says the economic toll the pandemic has taken on many towns and cities whose economies rely on tourism has been "heartbreaking".

He is warning operators to brace for a long and painful recovery.

"We're telling the industry we're looking at a three to five-year pathway here. Tourism is going to be the industry that recovers last out of this, on a global scale."

The immediate aim of the industry is to get domestic travel up and running again, Roberts said.

Last week Finance Minister Grant Robertson said there was no guarantee domestic travel would be allowed under level 2, with Cabinet set to make that decision in the coming weeks.

But Roberts says it clear that Kiwis want to be able not just to travel throughout the country again, but also to be free to visit friends and family living in other cities.

"We know New Zealanders want to get moving again, they want to be able to do it safely. We hope they're able to do that again under level 2."

He said the first priority for the industry was to concentrate on domestic tourism.

"For the short-term period that's all we're going to have.

"The second wave of the recovery is the opportunity to get the Australians back across the ditch. That will take a few months to get that sorted but it is looking promising that we can open our borders and expand our bubble to an Australasian bubble."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is set to join a meeting on Tuesday with Australian state leaders and the country's Prime Minister Scott Morrison to discuss the possibility of a trans-Tasman bubble.

Roberts said the sector was "reasonably optimistic" it could get the go-ahead but it wouldn't be easy.

"It is quite complex. We've got to build a safe COVID-19 border  - the first in the world. And the rest of the world will be watching what Australia and New Zealand do in this. So we've got to get all the medical and all the health requirements right, we have to have the right technology, we have to change the way we cross the border and we have to be able to trace people when they're in the other countries, so [it's] a lot to consider but we believe it can be done."

A "best-case scenario", he said, would see Australian tourists arrive in New Zealand in time for the ski season or for school holidays in September and October.