Elation marked today's opening of a long-awaited travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand.
The start of quarantine-free travel was a relief for families who have been separated by the pandemic, as well as struggling tour operators. It marked the first tentative steps toward what is hoped to be a gradual reopening to the rest of the world.
In New Zealand's capital Wellington, Danny Mather was overjoyed to see his pregnant daughter Kristy and his infant grandson for the first time in 15 months, after they flew in from Sydney.
What was the first thing they said to each other? “Not a thing,” he says, laughing. They just hugged. “It's just so good to see her and I'm just so happy to have her back.”
Kristy says it was overwhelming to be reunited with her family and it was amazing the bubble had opened. “I wished it had happened earlier, but it's happened now," she says. “I just wanted to get on that first flight because you never know, it may go south. Let's hope it sticks around."
Danny Mather said he wanted to keep New Zealand safe from the virus but also thought the time was right to open the bubble.
The idea of a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand had been talked about for months but faced setbacks because of several small virus outbreaks in both countries.
To mark the occasion, Wellington International Airport painted an enormous welcome sign near its main runway and Air New Zealand ordered 24,000 bottles of sparkling wine, offering a complimentary glass to adult passengers. Indigenous Maori performers welcomed arriving passengers who tearfully embraced loved ones.
Air New Zealand's Chief Operating Officer Carrie Hurihanganui said the carrier had previously been running only two or three flights a day between the two countries but that jumped to 30 flights on Monday, carrying 5,200 passengers.
She said the day marked a turning point and people were excited. “You can feel it at the airport and see it on people’s faces,” she said.
The leaders of both countries welcomed the bubble, saying it was a world-leading arrangement because it aimed to both open borders and keep the virus from spreading.
“Today’s milestone is a win-win for Australians and New Zealanders, boosting our economies while keeping our people safe," Australian Prime Scott Morrison said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country was welcoming new arrivals. “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," she said.
Travellers who lined up at Sydney and Melbourne airports on Monday said they were excited and relieved to finally be able fly to New Zealand after more than a year. Some were visiting family and friends, while others were attending funerals.
Both countries have managed to keep the virus at bay by putting up barriers to the outside world, including strict quarantine requirements for travellers returning from other countries where the virus is rampant.
”They did very well with the precautions and everything, better than all the world. Everywhere else cannot go anywhere safely," said Ameera Elmasry, who was at Wellington airport to greet her son Shady Osman, a doctor who she hadn’t seen in 16 months. “It's very good what's happened now."
Australia had previously allowed New Zealanders to arrive without going into quarantine but New Zealand had taken a more cautious approach, requiring travellers from Australia to undergo quarantine.
The bubble comes ahead of New Zealand's ski season and is welcome news for many tourist destinations, including the ski resort of Queenstown.