COVID-19: Cook Islands holding out hope as signs point to NZ travel bubble

Tourism operators are hopeful quarantine-free travel might be established soon.
Tourism operators are hopeful quarantine-free travel might be established soon. Photo credit: File

By Adam Jacobson for RNZ

Air New Zealand says it doesn't know of any impending announcement regarding a two-way travel bubble but it is ramping up its operations to the islands from May 10.

The Cook Islands are COVID-19 free but so far only quarantine-free travel to New Zealand has been established.

But a number of signs are giving Cook Island tourism operators hope that quarantine-free visits are on the verge of happening.

Cook Islands Tourism Industry Committee president Liana Scott runs the 30-room Muri Beach Club Hotel in Rarotonga and said a trans-Tasman bubble opening in just under two weeks had exciting potential for the country.

"We're really excited to have signs of it moving in the right direction. Obviously they've just announced the opening with Australia from the 19th onwards so we're really excited in that it potentially gives us the opportunity to tap into two markets, New Zealand and Australia," Scott said.

But it still remains unknown if travel between the three countries will be allowed, she said.

Her optimism came as the Cook Islands secretary of health was in Wellington working with New Zealand Ministry of Health officials.

And Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown alluded to a bubble in a statement, saying the country was going to capitalise on its New Zealand meetings shortly.

His nation's "high level of health preparedness" would reduce the risk of the virus entering the country - which has so far-remain entirely COVID-19-free.

Scott said quarantine-free travel could not come soon enough.

"I know this has been repeated a few times but it's a fact - our GDP depends heavily on tourism and that's for the whole economy, not just tourist operators. We've been holding on for more than a year and it's starting to get quite weary. Businesses can only hold on for so long so opening means the existence of an economy that can bounce back."

Air New Zealand may also have let slip two-way travel could be imminent.

The airline is now advertising daily flights to the Cook Islands from 10 May, well ahead of any official travel-bubble announcement.

In an email, the airline said based on announcements from Prime Ministers Brown and Jacinda Ardern, it expected a potential start date that month.

"Air New Zealand doesn't know when the bubble will open but needs to get the operation prepared by making sure we have our schedule planned, enough crew to operate etcetera," it said.

"This ensures we are operationally ready should the Cook Islands bubble be announced. This is reflected in our selling schedule as you can see with the increase in flights to the Cook Islands from 10 May."

The airline said it should be noted that Cook Islanders could travel between the two countries without quarantining already.