‘Many tears of joy’: joy as New Zealand opens border after two years of isolation | New Zealand

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Tears, hugs, laughter and cries of children echoed through New Zealand’s arrival halls as the country opened its borders and lifted isolation requirements.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for six months,” said Steve, 72, who was waiting for his fiancée, Karin, to arrive from Australia. “I’m over the moon,” he said. “I feel a little shaky.”

Steve said he had cleaned their motorhome, complete with a karaoke machine, top to bottom, in preparation for a trip to New Zealand so the couple could see friends and family. “We talked on the phone for five hours a day to keep our sanity that way,” says Steve. “It was very hard.”

For almost two years, the arrival terminals of New Zealand’s international airports have become closed ghost towns. Besides a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, the country’s borders were closed, and those lucky enough to secure entry into the country were taken to isolation and quarantine facilities run by the government for two costly weeks isolated in a hotel room.

Wednesday marked the end of that era for returning citizens, and for the first time since March 2020 flights landed Thursday full of New Zealanders without isolation or quarantine requirements.

Apart from a short-lived travel bubble with Australia, New Zealand’s borders have been closed for nearly two years. Photograph: David Rowland/AFP/Getty Images

For others, the joy of reunion was tempered by grief. “I’m expecting my brother and his new wife,” Tania Fitzhenry said as she burst into tears. “We’re trying to get back to Huntly in time for him to see our dad.”

The family have been waiting for a long time for border restrictions to be lifted, so that their brother can come back and say goodbye to their very sick father. “It’s like an eternity,” she said. “I think Dad has been waiting all week. I hope God, please wait, he just has to last a few more hours. Until last night we were saying, dad, it’s good to let go – but then [it became] Craig’s pretty close now, you gotta hold on.

New Zealand’s initial plan to reopen the borders in stages, first announced in November, was derailed by the arrival of Omicron. The government resuscitated its reopening plans in February, on the condition that travelers still had to self-isolate for 10 days. This week, as the country’s Covid transmission rates soared to some of the highest in the world and cases in the community far exceeded those at the border, this requirement was dropped and the dates of entry of New Zealanders into the world have been advanced.

For some New Zealanders, it marks the end of a bitter and difficult journey. Many have found themselves separated from their families, unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones, missing family milestones, breaking visa requirements or being forced to stay abroad illegally.

“Members of this group have been waiting for this for so long,” Justine Kirby of Grounded Kiwis, a group that advocates for New Zealanders stranded overseas, said in a statement.

“[There are] many for whom it is too late. And it’s also deeply personal for me: I haven’t seen any of my family for almost four years now,” she said. After the announcement, “I called mom and, for the first time since early 2020, we started making travel plans together. Lots of tears of joy.

The border was opened to New Zealanders and eligible travelers arriving from Australia on Monday and to all other New Zealanders on Friday. The Cabinet will consider reopening dates for tourists and other visitors in the coming months.

From Thursday, vaccinated travelers will no longer need to self-isolate but will still need to undergo a Covid-19 test upon arrival and on the fifth or sixth day, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday. If the traveler tests positive for the virus, they will be required to self-isolate, in line with New Zealander requirements. Unvaccinated travelers will still need to stay in controlled isolation.

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