Opposition leader Judith Collins says the tourism sector cannot wait any longer for a trans-Tasman bubble, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern remains resolutely cautious.
Australia allowed quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and New South Wales and Northern Territory in October last year. South Australia, Victoria and Queensland soon followed. But New Zealand is yet to return the offer.
The loss of tourists in New Zealand has been devastating. Annual visitors to New Zealand in 2019 were 1.5 million. There were 51,100 visitors from Australia who flew into Queenstown and Christchurch in July 2018 alone.
Now Queenstown is struggling. Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult fears that by the time overseas visitors can return to the tourist resort, the shops, restaurants and tourism operators could be boarded up.
Research commissioned for the Treasury shows Otago and Southland are among the regions expected to be most negatively affected by COVID-19, with a 3.3 percent drop in GDP expected from March 2020 to 2022.
"We've been told for months that a trans-Tasman bubble is being worked on but our borders remain sealed, even though Australia opened to Kiwis without any formal discussion," Collins said on Wednesday.
"Both countries have a similar COVID profile and Australia has proven a bubble can work. They opened their border to Kiwis in October and have adopted a flexible approach when there have been community cases in New Zealand. We should take the same approach."
Australians are exempt from new rules the Government introduced earlier this year requiring evidence of a negative COVID-19 test from travellers to New Zealand, before going into managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).
Collins says Australians should be required to provide evidence of a negative test, but then shouldn't be required to spend two weeks in MIQ.
"Managed isolation is overrun with long delays because places are being taken up by Kiwis returning from Australia when there is little, if any, risk of COVID-19," Collins said.
"These MIQ places could be better used by Kiwis returning from other parts of the world, or the skilled workers and their families needed by so many New Zealand companies."
Progress seemed to be on the horizon when Ardern announced in December a travel bubble with Australia could be in place from the first quarter of 2021.
But with recent outbreaks in both countries, Ardern is playing it safe.
"No one's suggesting we'll be opening up the borders generally at the present," she said at her post-Cabinet press conference.
"That's because every time we get close then we have a case then something happens that actually strays away from some of the protocols that we've been discussing and that causes us to have to go back and re-evaluate how in practice it will work."
Australia's one-way travel bubble with New Zealand was temporarily shut down in January in the wake of the Northland woman who tested positive for COVID-19 after completing two weeks in MIQ.
Ardern expressed "disappointment" with Australia at the time, saying travellers needed certainty.
"What we will need to establish is a way that we can have that arrangement but without seeing such disruption over events that may happen from time to time. But it does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level. We haven't ruled out the possibility of state-by-state."
The introduction of COVID-19 vaccines could change things, Ardern says.
"In terms of what the transition is from the current environment that we have towards an environment where vaccines will play a significant role, I intend to speak a little bit more to that in several weeks," she said.
"If we know the vaccine's making a big difference to transmission that may change up the way that we deal with people coming in at the border."
China has become one of the first countries to launch a digital COVID-19 certificate for its citizens travelling internationally, which shows a user's vaccination status and virus test results.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Tuesday it's only a matter of time before New Zealand needs to consider the same.
"If you look at yellow fever, for example, you can only visit some countries if you have a certificate to say you have been vaccinated for yellow fever," he said.
"It's likely that is going to become a pretty global standard around COVID-19 so we need to make sure people can access their records and produce that proof that they have been vaccinated and with what vaccine."