With Covid-19 forcing countries to close borders and cease international travel, New Zealand hopes to rejuvenate its tourism economy by inspiring inhabitants to explore their own country. Samuel Ballard reports

Few governments have won as many plaudits during the coronavirus pandemic as New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s administration has made a series of strict but sensible policies that look – at least at the time of writing – to have coronavirus infection rates on the run. (According to the Financial Times, New Zealand has had just two Covid-19 deaths per million people – in the UK it’s more than 200.)

However, those tough measures – namely an “elimination strategy” of far tougher restrictions at borders, quarantining new arrivals and locking down the country before a single death – are likely to take their toll on many industries.

Perhaps none more so than travel. In total, tourists spent NZ$41 billion (£20 billion) in New Zealand in the year to March 2019. That is an increase of 4 per cent on the previous year. International tourism grew by 5.2 per cent, outpacing domestic tourism. Companies are now facing a long wait until international tourists are allowed back in.

New Zealand is a country of explorers. Its population of 4.8 million people takes three million overseas trips every year. However, most tourist sites traditionally rely on foreign visitors – of which there are 3.9 million every year, making tourism the country’s biggest export, according to the Tourism Export Council of New Zealand.

The situation is two-fold: the clampdown on foreign travel means that many New Zealand tourism businesses are suffering while New Zealanders face the prospect of not being able to leave the country. The solution, for many, is to make 2020 the year that locals get to know their own territories better.

“There used to be a saying, ‘don’t leave home until you’ve seen the country’, well now you can’t leave home, so go out and see it,” Tim Alpe, the chief executive of Jucy, a campervan hire company, told Stuff.

For New Zealand, there are a range of incredible options right on their doorstep. From the country’s renowned wine country on the North Island to Queenstown on the South Island, a region known for its adventure sports – such as bungee jumping and hiking – that only records 38 per cent of its spending as being from domestic travellers.

It’s a six-hour drive from Christchurch – the country’s third biggest city – but, as soon as their lockdown is over, many New Zealanders might think that now is the time to make the drive. Staycations will become the go-to option.

When it comes to airlines, for many, the future looks bleak. Air New Zealand, the country’s flag carrier, has laid off all B777 crews and had cut 95 per cent of its domestic routes by the spring. However, the government is offering a loan of up to NZ$900 million (£437 million) if it needs it. Air Chathams, a domestic carrier, has lost 90 per cent of its business.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA), New Zealand’s tourism industry association, has long campaigned for its members to target the domestic travel market, including creating an online tool to help them increase their domestic tourism numbers.

But now they must face up to a new reality – when the household lockdown is lifted but government restricts international arrivals – at least from countries still suffering with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Activating domestic tourism delivers many benefits for tourism businesses and regions,” the TIA website reads. “It also strengthens community support for tourism. By persuading more New Zealanders to use their discretionary dollars on a domestic travel experience, we’ll have more successful tourism operators. Other businesses that provide products and services for visitors will also benefit, such as supermarkets, petrol stations, cafes and bars.”

On the back of that, many commentators have mooted the idea of “zones” where international travel is allowed within groups of countries that have also beaten the virus. For New Zealand, the first one is likely to be a “trans-Tasman bubble” – allowing travel between Australia and New Zealand. This would then be further added to on a case-by-case basis with regional players such as Singapore, although this was experiencing a new wave of infections at the time of writing.

Asked about the possibility at a press conference, Prime Minister Ardern said: “Both of us have the same goal in mind at the moment – get it under control in our own countries and then we can talk about together what we’re able to achieve.

“For both of us I anticipate the border restrictions will be present for a long time, so it becomes whether or not there’s anything we can build into our border restrictions that take into account our goals to keep Covid out for both of us.”

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