Hundreds of passengers from Australia began arriving in New Zealand airports on Monday after authorities reopened borders, a pandemic milestone that allows quarantine-free travel between the countries for the first time in over a year.

Though most Australian states have allowed quarantine-free visits from New Zealand residents since late last year, New Zealand had enforced isolation for arrivals from its neighbour, citing concerns about sporadic virus outbreaks there.

“The bubble marks a significant step in New Zealand’s reconnection with the world and it is one that we should all take a moment to be very, very proud of,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern told reporters in Wellington.

With the borders open, Ardern said Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison would visit New Zealand in the “not too distant future”. Ardern said Australia Foreign Minister Marise Payne would travel to New Zealand on Wednesday.

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

“I haven’t been excited, I haven’t looked forward to it, I haven’t planned anything because I just didn’t think it was going to happen,” Michelle Rafferty, a passenger on a flight from New Zealand, told Australian media at the Sydney airport.

Passengers flying to New Zealand capital of Wellington were greeted from the air with a ‘Welcome Whanau’- the Maori term for extended family – painted in huge white letters near the runway.

At the Auckland airport, a choir was singing Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Welcome Home’ as people hugged and kissed their dear ones.

Qantas (QAN.AX) will ramp up flights between the countries to about 200 each week, while Air New Zealand (AIR.NZ) said it had quadrupled its flights to 30 on Monday, with its airplanes flying into New Zealand 97% full.

TRAVEL UNDER ‘CONSTANT REVIEW’

Despite the excitement of open borders, Morrison and Ardern warned travellers to prepare for disruptions to their travel at short notice in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks, and said the risks of quarantine-free travel will be under “constant review”.

Both leaders also flagged the possibility of extending quarantine-free travel to other countries in the Pacific region when “it is safe to do so.”

About 1.5 million Australians visited New Zealand in 2019, the year before the pandemic closed international borders, making up about 40% of all visitors, spending NZ$2.7 billion ($1.93 billion) in the country, official data showed.

More than half a million New Zealand-born people live in Australia, just over 2% of Australia’s population of near 26 million.

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

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Felicity Wilson sat with the laptop open in front of her as she waited for the announcement. Her details had already been filled out on the screen, all she needed to do was hit the “confirm” button.

She watched on the live-stream as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the press conference. “I can confirm that quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia will commence in just under two weeks’ time, from 11:59pm Sunday, April 18.”

Wilson clicked confirm. Her flight was booked – she was finally going home.

“The announcement of the travel bubble was such a relief,” said Wilson, 71, from Auckland. “I cannot wait to get back to the love of my life. He has been through even more strife over there than I have been through over here.”

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Wilson is speaking from Australia’s Sunshine Coast where she has been for the past 10 weeks.

She and her husband, Verne, 74, among many Kiwis and Aussies who have faced lengthy separationfrom loved ones due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The announcement of a trans-Tasman travel bubble allowing for quarantine-free travel between the two countries means not just that the couple can finally be together.

It also means they can each now fight their cancer battles side by side.

For Wilson it started three years ago with an uncomfortable pain in her chest. A visit to her GP and numerous tests provided no answers, but the pain became so bad she had to go to hospital, where for two weeks doctors struggled to find a diagnosis.

Auckland International Airport has split its international terminal in two to enable safe quarantine-free travel.

X-rays of her shoulder and chest showed nothing, blood tests came back normal. Could it maybe be cancer, she asked – she had fought breast cancer 21 years earlier and survived.

Doctors did not think another such diagnosis was likely, but the nagging thought remained, and the day after being discharged she asked her GP to refer her for a CT scan.

When she walked back into his office the following day and saw his face, she already knew.

“I said to him, ‘It is not good news, is it?’. He said, ‘No. You have cancer. It is in your sternum and it is stage four’.”

Back at the hospital, doctors told her she had between three and five years to live, and that radiation was impossible because of her previous treatment.

“Because I had already gone through this I had a lot of knowledge about cancer, but my husband didn’t. Verne asked the doctor what happens at stage five, and the doctor answered, there is no stage five. I knew what stage four meant. Stage four means the end of the road.”

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid Response minister Chris Hipkins are all smiles as they announce the travel bubble to Australia as opening on April 19.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid Response