NZ tourism frets over Tasman bubble delays

Milford Sound is just one of the NZ destinations crying out for a return of Aussie visitors.
Milford Sound is just one of the NZ destinations crying out for a return of Aussie visitors.

New Zealand tourism figures are despairing at fresh setbacks to the trans-Tasman bubble, saying they need international visitors - and soon - to avoid mass layoffs and business failures.

Hopes for quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand took a hit this week as NZ's first community COVID-19 case in weeks prompted Australia to suspend its one-way arrangement.

Few want the bubble working more than New Zealand's tourism businesses.

With borders closed to international visitors, Tourism Industry Aotearoa (TIA) estimates the sector will miss out on $NZ6 billion ($A5.6 billion) this summer.

A third of that spend would have come from Australians, and perhaps more given a bubble would make New Zealand the only international destination available to jetsetting Aussies.

Before Christmas, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern targeted the "first quarter" of 2021 for open borders, but on Tuesday the NZ leader said Australia's reaction made the prospect "increasingly difficult".

Frustrated TIA chief executive Chris Roberts sees the bubble slipping away.

"Every time we almost get to the prize it gets snatched away," he told AAP.

"The government was proposing to make it two-way in the first quarter and they were going to give us a precise date for that in early January.

"Now we're at the end of January and our prime minister is signalling it's getting more difficult.

"Our tourism businesses need customers."

Mr Roberts says many companies have enjoyed strong summers off the back of domestic holiday makers, but those in remote pockets of New Zealand - such as South Island's Fjordland and Westland - are battling.

"Te Anau, Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, places where Kiwis don't tend to go have felt like ghost towns," he said.

"Things have dropped away considerably since early January and that will fall again further next week when schools go back.

"Operators are telling us they're very nervous.

"Thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses could disappear because the cash flows from Christmas and the New Year are not going to sustain them much further."

One such operator, Te Anau-based Fjordland Trips and Tramps, is keeping its head above water by putting together a package combining three great walks.

"Five hundred people have booked that through the summer season. That's enough to keep three or four staff," owner Steve Norris told AAP.

"But no one is making any money at Milford Sound. I moved here in 1990 and I've not seen it like it is now."

Mr Norris said February and March are the biggest months of the tourism year but operators would be "lucky to hit 10 per cent" this year.

"All of New Zealand has now gone back to work," he said, adding he was "beyond building up hope" for a bubble.

"We'll believe it when we're taking Australians on tours," he said.

"And soon companies are going to have to make hard decisions to shut up doors and mothball - or the receivers will come in."

Mr Roberts said he supported the safety-first approach, but a bubble delay would mean his industry needs more support.

"The single biggest assistance government could give would be opening up the Tasman," he said.

"There's pent up demand in Australia, particularly if we're the one choice. There's a huge prize we just can't access."

Australian Associated Press