COVID: New Zealand welcomes first cruise ship back since pandemic

WELLINGTON, New Zealand –

New Zealand on Friday welcomed its first cruise ship back since the coronavirus pandemic began, signaling a long-awaited return to normal for the nation’s tourism industry.

New Zealand closed its borders in early 2020 as it first sought to completely eliminate COVID-19 and then control its spread. Although the country reopened its borders to most travelers arriving by plane in May, it was not until two weeks ago that the country lifted all remaining restrictions, including those for maritime customers.

Many in the travel industry question why it took so long.

The end of the restrictions allowed Carnival Australia’s Pacific Explorer cruise ship to dock in Auckland with around 2,000 passengers and crew on Friday morning as part of a 12-day return trip to Fiji departing from Sydney.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Tourism Minister Stuart Nash said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It’s another step in reopening our borders and one step closer to resuming business as usual.”

Nash said it will take some time for tourist numbers and international revenue to return to pre-pandemic levels, when the industry accounts for about 20% of New Zealand’s foreign income and more than 5% of GDP.

“I think there have been a lot of people in the tourism sector who have been working on this the hard way over the last two years,” Nash said. “But we’ve always taken an approach where we need to make sure we get a healthy response. Because if we don’t, we know the consequences are dire.”

Not everyone is happy with the return of tourists. A sailboat carrying protesters upset about the industry’s impact on the environment followed the Pacific Explorer into the harbor on Friday, before passengers were greeted with a native Maori welcome and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s visit.

Nash said the travel halt has provided an opportunity for the country to reset its priorities. One of them is going after what he describes as wealthier “high-quality” tourists who will stay longer and have a story to tell when they return home.

“We’re not targeting people who drop by and post on Facebook: ` `Hey, travel around New Zealand for $10 a day with just 2 minutes of noodles,'” Nash said.

Another goal, he said, is to dispel the notion that people working in the industry will suffer long hours and low wages, and turn it into a more ambitious and desirable career.

Nash said that with airfares more expensive and travelers more risk-averse than before the pandemic, travel numbers may remain down for a while, but he thinks the industry will eventually come back strong.

“I see markets like the United States as a really important market for New Zealand,” he said. “There’s already two trillion dollars saved in the states above and more than this would have been saved without COVID. So there’s a bit of money floating around.”

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