New Zealand will reopen its borders to the world in the coming months, the government announced on Wednesday, allowing the return of displaced residents from January and tourists from April.
The South Pacific nation imposed strict border restrictions when the pandemic began, effectively banning tourists and requiring returning residents to spend two weeks in a quarantine hotel run by the military.
At times, the demand for quarantine beds far exceeds the supply, forcing some displaced residents to wait for months for available slots.
For the first 18 months of the pandemic, border measures were seen as vital to keeping New Zealand free of the virus.
But stamping out an August outbreak proved impossible, prompting New Zealand to abandon its elimination strategy in October. Vaccination rates are also rising, making it harder to justify frontline measures.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the government has made tough trade-offs to keep New Zealanders as safe as possible during the pandemic.
“We accept that it’s been very difficult. Families have been torn apart. People have found themselves sheltering in places they didn’t expect to live for long,” Hipkins said. “We are acutely aware of the impact these restrictions have on individuals’ lives and their livelihoods.”
Under the government’s plan, all arriving passengers will still have to self-isolate for seven days, at least for now.
Hipkins said he wants to reduce the risk of the virus being spread by incoming travelers by reopening the border in phases.
Fully vaccinated New Zealanders will be able to return from Australia from January 16 and from other countries after February 13 without being in quarantine. After this, the doors will open in phases for tourists and other travelers from April 30.
New Zealand is also removing a very high-risk designation from some countries, including Indonesia, India and Brazil, to allow people from those countries to return or travel.
New Zealand announced earlier this week that bars, restaurants and gyms could reopen in Auckland from December 2, lifting the last remnants of a lockdown that began in August in the country’s largest city.
It also signaled a new phase in New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, which will require people across the country to be fully vaccinated to attend anything from haircuts to watching concerts.
About 69% of New Zealanders have been fully vaccinated, including 84% of those 12 years of age and older. New Zealand has reported just 40 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began.
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