BURSTING THE BUBBLE

By Sandy Myhre

The announcement that New Zealand was officially Covid19 virus-free from 9th June 2020 resulted in the government allowing the nation to essentially get back to normal with what is called Level 1 confinement.  In other words, barely any restrictions apart from shutting down the borders.

During the past two weeks there has been political talk that the country’s borders ‘might’ be open ‘soon’ to allow travel between New Zealand and Australia without the need for incoming passengers to isolate in New Zealand for two weeks on arrival.

According to the Stuff news website, (4th June 2020) New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, said the fate of the trans-Tasman travel bubble lies with Australia.

NZ Deputy Prime Minister, Hon Winston Peters.

“New Zealand is getting protocols and safety measures ready, but it is still waiting for a response from the Australian Federal Government,” he said.

Mr Peters said the situation was ‘complicated’ because Australia’s Federal Government had the right to determine who arrived in the country, but once they landed that right goes to whichever state the traveller was going to.  New Zealand, he said, had a ‘much simpler system’.

A high-powered group investigating opening up trans-Tasman travel amid the coronavirus pandemic says it hoped to get people travelling by the July school holidays. The Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group is made up of 11 government agencies, six airports, two airlines, and includes health experts and airline, airport and border agency representatives from both Australia and New Zealand.

Asked if July was a feasible start date for travel between New Zealand and any parts of Australia, Mr Peters the next step ‘is up to Canberra’.

If the borders were to open, what can visitors to New Zealand expect?  There are certainly numerous attractive deals from a tourism industry starved of international visitors. In other words, discounts are on offer but there might be complications.

One five-star hotel in Auckland – the Millennium Hotel in Mayoral Drive– in early June was offering a special weekend rate for couples.  It’s one of the city’s venerable hotels.  When it was known as the Carlton Hotel it hosted many of the visiting heads of state and the APEC State Dinner in 2000.

Grand Millennium Hotel, Mayoral Drive, Auckland, New Zealand.

That occasion was the first time that Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s Prime Minster, and USA President Bill Clinton officially met. They were welcomed by the then Prime Minister, Dame Jenny Shipley.

On 28th May it was offering rooms for a couple at an excellent $80 per night so I made an enquiry as a journalist.

“If you would like to do rooms or food shooting, unfortunately you will not be able to do that on our premises at the moment,” came the reply.

I accepted the offer and asked if I could use images from the hotel’s gallery. On the 5th June came an email in response.

“I regret to inform you that the hotel is going to be closed from 5th June to 1st August to assist the government in accommodation (sic) returning Kiwis and are unable to accept bookings during this time.”

The hotel’s ‘452 stylish rooms and suites’ it seems were booked by the government to cater for Kiwis returning home from overseas and required to isolate.  At least it’s an advance on an army camp outside of Auckland used in the early days of lockdown. Officially, the hotel was to become ‘a Managed Isolation Facility for the Government and the Ministry of Health’.

Would all 452 rooms at the hotel be commandeered?  By the 9th June the hotel’s website still didn’t make mention any of this although in trying to book a room one is advised ‘sorry, you just missed the last room’ on each of the six room options.

But there are other options.  The Grand Millennium Hotel’s sister hotel – the curiously-named MSocial on the waterfront in Auckland (formerly a Travelodge) – is available to be booked but at a higher price than that originally on offer from the Mayoral Drive property. 

MSocial Hotel, Auckland waterfront, New Zealand.

Rooms on the waterfront four-star hotel range from $196 through to $208, depending on the website one is booking through.

The old saying ‘don’t leave town until you’ve seen the country’ – which was a catchphrase originating from a 1980’s television travel advertising campaign – applies as domestic tourism is today targeted in the absence of inbound tourism from outside the borders.

Even at Level 2 lockdown (which was slightly less restrictive than Levels 3 and 4) many Kiwis obliged.  The Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, Bay Of Islands, the oldest pub in New Zealand ‘refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827’ put up the ‘full’ sign on Queen’s Birthday long weekend 30th May – 1st June for the first time in months with the majority of those bookings coming from points south, mainly Auckland. 

The oldest pub in New Zealand, the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Russell, Bay of Islands.

Local motels and hotels reported a similar response which surprised many since the Bay of Islands was previously heavily dependent on overseas tourists, cruise ship passengers and a cross section of foreign back packers through to high-end travellers. Domestic tourists represented only around 20 percent of travellers.

Many Kiwis who had their flights cancelled on Level 4 lockdown subsequently tried to redeem flights held by Air New Zealand on credit. There are significant problems in accessing the call centre.  One woman said she has phoned three times (waiting for a total of an hour-and-a-half) to still not get through.  Her son waited an hour on her behalf and was answered by a voice taking messages.  On 9th June he was told he would be phoned ‘in two or three days’.  As of 13th June there was still no word.

New Zealand’s national airline, Air New Zealand. Photo: James Coleman

He also went to the local airport to see if the tickets could be changed at the check-in.  They could not and the woman behind the counter referred him to the website which, in turn, always says to phone the airline. The question to be asked is, if they are so busy, why can’t Air New Zealand employ some of the many staff they have made redundant to answer the phone?

In any event, tourism and hospitality sectors in New Zealand are welcoming with relief the opportunity not to have to maintain distance between customers, essentially halving their businesses and certainly welcoming domestic travellers.  Whether the trans-Tasman bubble will soon burst, remains yet to be announced.   

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