Tourism operators want COVID-19 pre-departure testing removed as border partially reopens

By Soumya Bhamidipati of RNZ

Tourism operators say pre-departure Covid-19 testing is putting off overseas travellers from coming here and they want the requirement ditched.

The border has reopened to vaccinated visitors from about 60 visa waiver countries - including the US, UK, Japan and Singapore.

However, local operators are warning business will remain slow for some time.

Louisa Patterson, who runs Queenstown's Over the Top Helicopters, was not expecting business to pick up immediately. She was not anticipating a surge in visitors from North America and Europe until at least October.

"They're not going to rush back because the borders have opened, but they are going to come here in their winter and our summer," she said.

"We'll be looking forward to seeing them in October. I think we're still going to have the normal leaner tourism winter."

Patterson said the rule that visitors who tested positive for Covid-19 once here had to isolate had not helped, with some Australian tourists already cancelling bookings for this reason.

House of Travel chief operating officer Brent Thomas said New Zealand would not be at the top of people's list until the government removed the pre-departure test requirement.

"Places like Australia, the UK, Denmark, and more recently places like Fiji, have removed that pre-departure requirement," he said.

"That makes it easier for people to travel there, therefore they're more likely to go to those countries than New Zealand."

If tourists were put off coming here, then it would take longer for the industry to recover and for airlines to return to full capacity, he said.

Flight Centre managing director David Coombes said bookings were up, but not particularly to the benefit of tourism businesses here.

"We've seen an enormous spike in bookings, mostly for Kiwis heading out of New Zealand to be honest," he said.

"A bunch of our Flight Centre markets in other countries have seen a little bit of a pick-up for people wanting to come into New Zealand, and that's exciting that Kiwis will be able to welcome their families home again."

Coombes said forecasts indicated travel numbers would not return to pre-Covid-19 levels until 2024-5.

Both companies said more people were booking travel through an agent, rather than directly with an airline or online, because they were finding the changing requirements too complicated to navigate.

Fritz Frohlke owns EyeFly, a Taupo-based company that provides video systems for adventure-tourism companies both here and overseas.

His clients in places like Hawaii and London were faring far better than their New Zealand counterparts, he said.

"London's just abolished every single restriction there is, and their customer numbers are back to better than pre-Covid, a 105 percent, whereas New Zealand is absolutely on the floor, on its knees," he said.

"Most of our customers here are not even doing a third of what they used to do, and there's quite a few who've gone bankrupt."

Minister of Tourism Stuart Nash said thousands of passengers would touch down today on about 25 flights, and searches for flights to New Zealand were 19 percent higher than in March-April 2019, pre-Covid-19.

However, he acknowledged international travel would be competitive and airlines would take time to build up their schedules.