$49 million tourism fund now available to operators
Tourism operators say they have gone from rock-bottom to elated after hearing Australians will be welcomed back before Easter.
Those crossing the Tasman can start arriving from 13 April while other people from other visa waiver countries, including the US and UK, can touch down from 2 May.
The once nearly $42 billion industry has been decimated with thousands of jobs lost when the borders slammed shut.
But the prime minister has confirmed Fortress New Zealand was ready to roll out the welcome mat, and businesses would only have weeks to wait before Australian bags hit the airport carousels.
Tourism operators said it was the best news they have had in years.
iFly Queenstown owner Matt Wong was elated by the announcement.
"It's so exciting. After 24 months of slogging away, to hear the government positive about border opening and positive about backing the tourism sector to be one of the big players back in the New Zealand economy again, we're just stoked, absolutely overwhelmed."
It could not come at a better time.
"The street's absolutely empty in Queenstown at the moment," Wong said. "Operators are seeing no visitors so they actually are burning cash right now and they're not getting any revenue whatsoever.
"We're actually not able to open because our staff are all sick with Covid and isolating so this feels to me like it's rock bottom right now.
"So having some welcome news like this gives us a bit of an energy boost and something to smile about because what it means is we can survive."
Now his thoughts were moving to staffing and ramping up ahead of the visitors returning.
The government's $49 million tourism kick-start fund is aimed at helping businesses in the five hardest-hit regions ramp up or restart before the borders reopen. Operators in Fiordland, Queenstown, Wanaka; Kaikōura; Westland and the Mackenzie District are eligible.
Wong said the timing of the fund would be crucial.
"We've got a lot of projects that we wanted to do but we just could not pull the trigger on them, because it was a little bit irresponsible when we're in survival mode.
"But now that we've got some assurance that the market is coming back, we can start building our businesses back up so that they're in a position where they can accept those customers and deliver that great service."
Tourism Minister Stuart Nash confirmed the applications to the tourism kick-start fund would formally open on 1 April and businesses could start preparing their applications.
"Tourism businesses that existed prior to the global pandemic are eligible for grants worth two weeks of pre-Covid revenue, between $10,000 and $50,000 each, if they had a 50 percent drop in annual revenue compared to 2019-2020 levels," Nash said.
"The grants could be used to refresh facilities or marketing, train and hire new staff, or source new stock in readiness for opening. It will take time and money, and is exactly what the tourism kick-start fund is for."
They would then be assessed and processed by local agencies in each region but payments were expected as soon as possible, he said.
"The accelerated re-opening of our borders is a moment to celebrate for our tourism sector.
"Businesses, workers and whole communities can now look forward to April and beyond, and start planning for a new buzz of activity."
inFlite offered scenic flights, skydiving, heli-skiing and air transfers with bases around the country.
Its general manager, Gemma Parton, was pleased the industry now had certainty.
"Finally, there's some positivity in the region and in the country about the fact that we are going to open up again."
She expected some regions would bounce back quicker than others, especially those that offered more winter and skiing experiences.
"Certainly our bases on the West Coast in Fox and Franz will probably, I think, be the slowest to come back online with so many constraints around staffing in the regions and things like that.
"Even if there is the demand, whether we'll be able to keep up with that in the very short term, will be one of the main challenges that we face over the next couple of months."
Kāpiti Island Nature Tours managing director John Barrett was not expecting any staffing problems - he was just happy the visitors were coming back.
"It's about time, and - contrary to a lot of what my colleagues are saying - it's the right time."
With the return of Australians mere weeks away, tourism operators are now racing to get ready in time.