By NICK PERRY – Associated Press
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Wednesday her nation is “ready to welcome the world back,” with most tourists expected to return by May as the nation continues to ease its coronavirus restrictions.
The announcement has brought forward the date that tourists from countries like the US, Canada, the UK and much of Europe can visit from the previously announced October date.
International tourism used to account for around 20% of New Zealand’s overseas income and more than 5% of GDP.
But when the pandemic began, New Zealand implemented some of the strictest border controls in the world and tourism evaporated. The measures were initially credited with saving thousands of lives and allowing New Zealand to clean up or contain several outbreaks.
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But now that the Omicron variant is spreading across the country, the border restrictions have become largely irrelevant.
Ardern said the move would boost the economy.
“Closing our border was one of the first actions we took to stop COVID-19 over two years ago, and reopening it will propel our economic recovery for the rest of the year,” she said.
Under the new schedule, tourists from Australia can visit from April 12 and tourists from other visa-exempt countries from May 1. Tourists from non-exemption countries – including India and China – will have to wait longer unless they already have valid visitor visas.
Tourists must be vaccinated and tested negative for the virus before leaving their home country and again upon arrival in New Zealand.
“I know from visiting tourism companies and talking to their employees how tough these last two years have been,” Ardern said. “And not just because of the massive loss of tourism revenue, but because we’ve lost something that we derived so much of our identity from.”
New Zealand is known for its beautiful scenery and adrenaline-pumping adventure tourism. The announcement comes as a timely boost for ski resorts trying to plan for the upcoming southern hemisphere winter.
“Tourism operators finally have confirmation that they can resume business,” said Ann-Marie Johnson, a spokeswoman for Tourism Industry Aotearoa. “Tourism was the first industry to be hit by the pandemic and will be the last to recover. Both large and small tourism companies have made great sacrifices but can now focus on rebuilding their businesses.”
For the past few weeks, New Zealand has been reporting about 20,000 new virus cases each day, the largest outbreak since the pandemic began. The nation’s COVID-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, became the latest high-profile person to test positive on Wednesday.
However, experts expect that the Omicron outbreak, like in many other countries, will quickly subside from its peak.
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