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Travel restrictions ease by Pacific countries for inclusion

Pacific countries plead for inclusion in ‘trans-Tasman bubble’ as travel restrictions ease | World news

Pacific Island nations are urging Australia and New Zealand to include them in a planned travel “bubble”, as flights across the region resume. Pacific governments face a delicate balancing act, weighing the devastating economic impact of border closures and travel restrictions on their tourism-dependent economies, with the risk of widespread and uncontrollable Covid-19 infections if the virus is introduced.

The Pacific region has had very low numbers of Covid-19 infections – just 305 confirmed cases to date – due to its geographic isolation and the strict enforcement of border closures.

Fiji and New Zealand this week declared themselves free of Covid-19, while other Pacific nations, including Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tonga, have successfully kept the virus from their shores altogether.

But in a part of the world that is financially dependent on tourism and which imports much of its food, fuel and other vital supplies, travel lockdowns have hit Pacific economies especially hard.

Fiji Airways has laid off 775 employees – more than half its workforce – while in Vanuatu, 70% of tourism workers have lost their jobs. A recent survey of Cook Islands businesses forecast a 90% drop in revenue from the economic impact of coronavirus travel restrictions.

Some Pacific leaders have expressed hope that inclusion in a travel bubble with Australia and New Zealand, which may open by September, could alleviate some of this distress.

“A travel bubble that includes Fiji alongside Australia and New Zealand would do far more good than any aid or assistance … we want to be in that bubble,” said Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji’s minister for the economy at the end of May, after detailing how pandemic travel restrictions could see government revenues halve next financial year.

“The hard truth is that if this drags on much longer, we’ll be coming to you for help one way or the other,” said Fletcher Melvin, the chair of the Cook Islands private sector taskforce, addressing the New Zealand government. “Our community wants a hand, not a handout – we’d much rather have New Zealand tourism dollars than its aid money.”

New Zealand and Australia have been reluctant to consider including Pacific neighbours. Australia has indicated Pacific labourers might be able to travel to Australia to work, but two-way travel is not yet currently being considered.

“The last thing we want to do is imperil those populations,” said Winston Peters, New Zealand’s foreign minister at the end of March, when the idea was first raised.

Governments across the Pacific also hold concerns that if the virus were to gain a significant foothold in the region it could devastate island communities, which have limited public health infrastructure, and populations with high rates of comorbidities, such as diabetes.

Secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, told the Asia Society Policy Institute in May that any reopening would “take time” and that government’s first priority must be “that people stay healthy”.

“We just don’t have strong health systems, health services and health infrastructure.”

Travel is beginning to resume across the Pacific, but so far has largely been limited to the repatriation of citizens, or travel between communities with existing close ties.

But flights from Paris to French Polynesia will resume next month with RNZ reporting that from 15 July, travellers from Europe, the United States and New Caledonia will be allowed to enter the country, though they must have a Covid-19 test three days before departing for the territory and four days after arrival.

There have been 60 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in French Polynesia, and the French territory reported the first case in the entire region in mid-March, a returning passenger from Paris.

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Engr. Naveed Anwar

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