New Zealand has welcomed the first cruise ship to return since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The country closed its borders in early 2020 as it sought at first to eliminate Covid-19 entirely and then later to control its spread.
Although the country reopened its borders to most tourists arriving by plane in May, it was not until two weeks ago that it lifted all remaining restrictions, including those on maritime arrivals.
The end of restrictions allowed Carnival Australia’s Pacific Explorer cruise ship to dock in Auckland with about 2,000 passengers and crew on Friday morning as part of a 12-day return trip to Fiji that left from Sydney.
Tourism minister Stuart Nash said: “It’s another step in the reopening of our borders and a step closer to resuming business as usual.”
Mr Nash said it would take some time for international tourist numbers and revenue to return to their pre-pandemic levels, when the industry accounted for about 20% of New Zealand’s foreign income and more than 5% of GDP.
“I think there’s been many people in the tourism sector who have done it hard over the last two years,” Mr Nash said. “But we’ve always taken an approach where we need to ensure that we get the health response right. Because if we don’t, we know the consequences are dire.”
A boat carrying protesters upset about the industry’s impact on the environment followed the Pacific Explorer into the harbour on Friday, before passengers were greeted with an indigenous Maori welcome and a visit by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Mr Nash said the pause in tourism had given the nation a chance to reset its priorities. One of those was to go after what he described as wealthier “high quality” tourists who would stay longer and have a story to tell when they returned home.
Mr Nash said that with airline tickets more expensive and travellers more risk-averse than before the pandemic, tourism numbers could remain subdued for a while, but he thought the industry would eventually make a strong comeback.
“I see markets like the United States being a really important market for New Zealand,” he said.