Hundreds of passengers from Australia began arriving in New Zealand airports on Monday after a travel bubble between the two nations opened.
The start of quarantine-free travel marked the first steps toward what both countries hope will become a gradual reopening to the rest of the world.
To celebrate the easing of travel restrictions, Wellington International Airport painted a large welcome sign near its main runway and Air New Zealand ordered 24,000 bottles of sparkling wine, offering a complimentary glass to adult passengers.
The airline’s chief operating officer Carrie Hurihanganui said the carrier had previously been running just two or three flights a day between the two countries but that increased to 30 flights on Monday carrying 5,200 passengers.
She said the day signalled a turning point and people were excited, adding: “You can feel it at the airport and see it on people’s faces.”
Meanwhile, television footage from Australia showed moving scenes at the airport as people reunited with their loved ones.
“I haven’t been excited, I haven’t looked forward to it, I haven’t planned anything because I just didn’t think it was going to happen,” Michelle Rafferty, a passenger on a flight from New Zealand, told Australian media at the Sydney airport.
The idea of a bubble between Australia and New Zealand had been discussed for months but faced delays due to several small virus outbreaks in both countries, which were eventually eliminated.
The leaders of both countries welcomed the bubble.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Today’s milestone is a win-win for Australians and New Zealanders, boosting our economies while keeping our people safe.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country was welcoming new arrivals.
She added: “The bubble marks a significant step in both countries’ reconnection with the world and it’s one we should all take a moment to be very proud of.”
Both countries have succeeded in keeping the virus out by putting up barriers to other countries, including severe quarantine measures for travellers returning from places where the virus is widespread.
Australia had previously allowed New Zealanders to arrive without going into quarantine but New Zealand had taken a more cautious method, requiring travellers from Australia to complete quarantine.
So far, Australia has recorded 29,519 Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has registered 2,596 cases.