In one of the world’s first experiments in reopening borders, the first quarantine-free flight from Australia landed in New Zealand on Monday, reciprocating a half-bubble in place since October that allowed New Zealand visitors to fly the other way.

The separation has been keenly felt because the two countries normally are closely linked. More than half a million New Zealanders live in Australia, and citizens of each country have working rights in the other. They share a mutual love of sports such as rugby and cricket, with players regularly crossing between the two countries to compete. Before the pandemic, Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists.

In Queenstown, a tourist spot on New Zealand’s South Island, two firetrucks trained their hoses over the runway to create an arch of water for the first plane to taxi through when it landed about 2:30 p.m. local time. A local tour company was offering free bungee jumps to passengers willing to launch themselves headlong into a river canyon immediately after the flight landed.

“It’s like we’re back in the business we were designed for,” Adrienne Young-Cooper, chair of the Queenstown Airport, said on local television. “We knew it was going to be a long time, but we didn’t know quite how long,” she said of the coronavirus travel shutdowns.

Among the well-wishers in Sydney were a group of drag queens in sparkling costumes and colorful wigs. They carried gold balloons and signs saying: “We’ve missed you, New Zealand.”

“It is truly exciting to start quarantine-free travel with Australia. Be it returning family, friends or holidaymakers, New Zealand says, ‘Welcome and enjoy yourself,’ ” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Travel bubbles have been under discussion around the world since early in the pandemic, but logistics and shifting patterns of virus spread have complicated such plans. Border closures are most prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region.

Singapore and Hong Kong were scheduled to launch an air travel bubble in November. However, the plan was delayed after Hong Kong saw a surge in cases.

The Pacific nation of Palau welcomed back tourists this month from Taiwan, where domestic transmission of the virus has been tightly controlled, after a year of closed borders caused significant economic losses. Palau is one of the few nations not to have recorded any cases of the virus, and it has moved swiftly to vaccinate its small population of 18,000.

New Zealand has seen nearly 2,600 cases during the pandemic, with 26 deaths. Australia has had more than 29,000 cases and 910 deaths. Both nations have gone significant stretches without domestic spread, but they have seen periodic flare-ups.

Ardern earlier this month warned people to prepare for their travel plans to be disrupted if there is a coronavirus outbreak in either country.

Among those jubilant about the border reopening were fly-in-fly-out mine workers on remote Outback mines who, before the pandemic, would often return home during weeks

Emotions were high on Monday as excited passengers set off on the first flights between Australia and New Zealand as part of a a quarantine-free COVID-19 “travel bubble”, allowing families long separated by the pandemic to reunite.

“(I’ll) yell, scream cry, hug, kiss, (feel) happy – all of these emotions at once,” Denise O’Donoghue, 63, told the AFP news agency at Sydney airport as she prepared to board her flight.

The arrangement means passengers can make the three-hour flight across the Tasman Sea without having to complete a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine when they arrive.

Television footage showed emotional scenes at the airports with families reuniting and dozens of passengers thronging the international departure terminals at Australian airports.

“It is the first time in 400 days that people can travel quarantine-free and we are adding 16 return flights a day to New Zealand, and they are full,” Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday.

Qantas will increase flights between the countries to about 200 each week, while Air New Zealand said it had quadrupled its flights to 30 on Monday, with its airplanes flying into New Zealand at 97 percent capacity.

“It is truly exciting to start quarantine-free travel with Australia. Be it returning family, friends or holiday-makers, New Zealand says: ‘Welcome and enjoy yourself,’” New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Hope for normality

Australia was New Zealand’s largest source of international tourists before the pandemic, accounting for about 1.5 million arrivals or 40 percent of total visitors in 2019.

There were emotional scenes as quarantine-free travel resumed between New Zealand and Australia after nearly 400 days [Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via Reuters]

The border opening received saturation coverage from media in both countries, with live television reporting from airports providing regular updates on the progress of flights.

On a grass embankment at the foot of Wellington Airport’s runway, the words “WELCOME WHANAU” (family) were spelled out in giant letters.

Lorraine Wratt, a New Zealander stranded by the pandemic while visiting family in Australia, told AFP it was “wonderful” to be able to travel again.

“We’re very excited to be heading back home but we’re gonna miss our family (in Australia) big time,” she said.

More than half a million New Zealand-born people live in Australia, just more than 2 percent of Australia’s population of nearly 26 million.

Australia and New Zealand largely closed their borders to non-citizens and permanent residents more than a year ago, helping to keep their COVID-19 numbers relatively low compared with several other developed countries.

Other international arrivals into both countries must go through a two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense.

Australia has recorded just more than 29,500 virus cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had about 2,200 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.

There were hugs aplenty as Australia and New Zealand began a COVID-19 ‘travel bubble’ [Saeed Khan/AFP]

Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison warned travellers to prepare for disruptions to travel