Govt urged to consider Pacific travel bubble

Vanuatu, with an estimated population of 280,000 people spread across roughly 80 islands, is...
Overseas visitors account for 40% of Vanuatu's total economic output. Photo: Getty Images
The government is being urged to include the Pacific Islands in any proposed trans-Tasman bubble.

The leaders of New Zealand and Australia have talked of the possibility of axing border restrictions between the two countries.

Experts say that should also include some Pacific island states, given the impact of Covid-19 has decimated the economies of many countries in the region which rely on tourism from New Zealand and Australia.

Overseas visitors account for 40% of Vanuatu's total economic output and in the Cook Islands a massive 73%.

The Covid-19 response Pacific health advisory group head Colin Tukuitonga suggested New Zealand could first open its bubble to Niue, Cook Islands and Tokelau.

"Most of the tourists to the Cooks or Niue, Samoa, Tonga come from New Zealand and Australia. So it [makes] a lot of sense to me that you could extend the Australia-New Zealand bubble to include a selection of these islands," Tukuitonga said.

Still, there are complications. Tokelau, for example, is only reachable by boat from Samoa.

But some fear expanding a trans-Tasman bubble to include Pacific Island nations could risk spreading the virus to the region.

"The implications would be enormous if borders were opened too soon to the Pacific," Massey University senior lecturer in security studies Anna Powles said.

Last year a measles epidemic in Samoa killed 83 people after a traveller from Auckland brought it in.

Dr Powles said it would be better to gradually reopen borders to the Pacific, which could include only letting in Pacific seasonal workers at first.

She said this could mitigate the problems forecast by the World Bank, which this week said there would be a 13% fall in remittances to the Asia-Pacific, a financial lifeline for many families in the region.

By some accounts, Pacific governments may not want to open borders with New Zealand.

Tonga's top health official, Siale 'Akau'ola suggested on Thursday they would at first only allow travellers from countries that were completely free of Covid-19, online news website Matangi Tonga reported.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said the government would be mindful of its close connections to Australia and the Pacific when exploring border options, but it remained concerned about the potential for exporting the virus to other countries.

"There is no anticipation of borders reopening now; we are exploring what might be possible in the future. The first priority of all countries is to get the virus under control."

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