Trans-Tasman bubble is 'great hope' for New Zealand's tourism sector, but also poses huge economic risk

coronavirus 09/06/2020

The proposed trans-Tasman bubble between New Zealand and Australia is the "great hope" for our struggling tourism industry, which has left a 5 percent void in the economy, according to ANZ's chief economist Sharon Zollner.

Yet opening New Zealand's borders to Australia - a country that still has roughly 450 active cases of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus - needs to be done with extreme care to avoid risking 95 percent of the economy for a 5 percent slice, she says.

"There's a 5 percent hole in the economy where tourism used to be. There's a lot of jobs and a lot of income that is missing," Zollner told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"The trans-Tasman bubble is the great hope, but that would have to be done so carefully - because you don't want to risk 95 percent of your economy for 5 percent."

It's believed New Zealand's borders will remain closed to international travel outside of Australia and the Pacific until a vaccine has been released, a prospect that could still be 18 months away. Hence, the survival of our flailing tourism sector appears largely dependent on the proposed bubble, with the Opposition ramping up the pressure for a definitive timeline. 

However, National Party leader Todd Muller admitted he "doubted" the bubble would currently be in place if he were Prime Minister, but claimed he would provide more clarity than the Government currently has. 

Zollner said our economic recovery as a whole is largely dependent on the distribution of a vaccine. 

"It's going to depend on factors that aren't economic. That vaccine you're talking about - basically there's no way we're going to be opening our borders fully until that's a possibility. If there's no vaccine, we're going to have a very interesting debate with half the country saying, 'Open the borders', and the other half saying, 'Don't you dare'. Maybe we just split the islands and open one," she explained. 

She noted that New Zealand's most impacted sectors - retail, hospitality and tourism - are incredibly "people-centric", with tourism heavily reliant on overseas visitors that could be achieved by relaxing border restrictions - but at the risk of a potential re-infection. 

According to Johns Hopkins University's live COVID-19 case tracker, there are currently six active cases in Queensland; 340 active cases in New South Wales; one active case in Australian Capital Territory; 73 active cases in Victoria; six active cases in Tasmania and 31 active cases in Western Australia. There are currently no active cases in Northern Territory or South Australia.

In comparison, New Zealand announced it's final active case - a woman in Auckland - had recovered from the virus on Monday. The country has had no new cases of COVID-19 for 17 consecutive days.

As a result, opening the border to Australia could threaten New Zealand's success.

"Tourism is a massive hole in our economy that we can try and fill, but the health experts will be definitely sounding a warning on that," she said.

On Monday, University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker called for the Government to consider the Pacific before Australia when border restrictions are relaxed, noting that there have been no reported cases in countries including Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Nauru.

"Australia hasn't committed to elimination at this stage - it still has transmission happening in some parts of the country," he told The AM Show on Monday.

Dr Baker noted that Australia's more relaxed restrictions are not aimed at total elimination of the virus. Australian government officials have previously said they're going for a "containment and suppression" approach.

"If Australia committed to elimination as New Zealand has done, they could join us in this situation," said Dr Baker - who suggested we look beyond our traditional regional partner for other potential sources of tourism and travel. 

"More and more countries across east Asia are eliminating this virus - Taiwan has succeeded, South Korea's going that same direction, Hong Kong - there may be other countries that we would also look at linking to with potentially quarantine-free travel."