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New Zealand will open its borders to some tourists much earlier than expected

Passengers arrive at Auckland's International Airport, in Auckland, New Zealand, on Wednesday.
Michael Craig
Passengers arrive at Auckland's International Airport, in Auckland, New Zealand, on Wednesday.

New Zealand will let some international tourists enter earlier than previously anticipated in an effort to accelerate the nation's economic recovery, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Wednesday.

"We have now received guidance that it is safe to significantly bring forward the next stage of our border re-opening work: our tourists," Ardern told reporters at a press conference.

Starting April 12, vaccinated travelers from Australia can enter without having to quarantine at all. While vaccinated tourists from countries that don't need a visa, including the United States, will now able to enter beginning May 1.

The country's COVID response, which includes a high vaccination rate and a low death rate, has made New Zealand a "safe place to visit," Ardern said.

New Zealand has recorded just over 100 deaths and confirmed nearly 400,000 COVID-19 cases. Most of those cases have appeared since the start of this year amid a wave of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

"Closing our border was one of the first actions we took to stop COVID-19, over two years ago, and its reopening will spur our economic recovery throughout the remainder of the year," she said.

The move comes months head of schedule. Australians, which make up most of New Zealand's tourists, and citizens from other countries that do not need a visa to enter, including the United States, weren't supposed to be able to enter until mid-2022. Citizens from countries that require a visa, such as China, will still have to wait until October, but Ardern said that could change.

Tourism, previously a multibillion dollar industry that made up more than 16% of New Zealand's annual gross domestic product, has taken a significant hit since the pandemic began two years ago when the country swiftly shut its borders and implemented some of the toughest immigration controls in the world. And while this strategy won New Zealand early praise as a model for keeping the coronavirus at bay, it came at a high cost economic cost — particularly to New Zealand's crucial tourism sector.

In 2020 the number of international arrivals fell by over 75%,according to government data. The next year, international arrivals fell to a 50-year-low — down nearly 95% since the last pre-pandemic data in 2019.

Pressure to reopen the borders has mounted against Ardern for months, as residents criticized the ongoing strict lockdowns, stranded Kiwis outside of the country begged to come home and businesses across the South Pacific island nation pleaded for relief.

Overall, though, New Zealand's economy has recovered much faster from the initial COVID-19 shock due to quick "effective virus containment, measures to protect jobs and incomes and highly expansionary macroeconomic policies," according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The New Zealand's GDP grew by a shocking 4.7% in 2021, and is expected to grow nearly 4% this year.

Much better than many of its other Pacific neighbors, particularly the smaller, tourism and commodity-dependent island countries. The Sydney-based Lowy Institute predicts that if bigger countries do not step in and aid the Pacific in its recovery from the pandemic, an entire decade "lost" of economic development.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.

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