On Monday, Australia and New Zealand launched their long-anticipated travel bubble that will allow residents of each country to visit the other without having to quarantine upon arrival.
Emotional videos capturing long-awaited reunions in arrival halls in various airports across Australia and New Zealand have been circulating online since the first passengers touched down. Thousands are reported to have made the journey across the Tasman Sea in the bubble's opening first day.
Traveler Mark Carrington told Australia's Seven Network that he felt "amazing" after landing in Sydney.
"It's been nearly two years and I haven't seen my partner for that period of time. So it's been very tough," he said.
Before her flight to New Zealand, traveler Denise O'Donoughue told AFP that she felt like the world was returning to some sort of normal.
"What normal's going to be from now on I don't know, but I'm just really, really excited about today," she said.
Until now, New Zealand had required travelers from Australia to quarantine upon arrival. Most Australian states had dropped that requirement late last year.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters Monday that the Australia-New Zealand bubble is a significant step in getting New Zealand back to normal.
"What the bubble will mean for each of us personally is important, but what's also important is what it will mean for the economy and our recovery," she said. "According to Tourism New Zealand Forecasting, welcoming Australians back could mean a billion-dollar boost."
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also told reporters that the bubble is a win-win for both countries, who depend greatly on each other for tourism. New Zealand government data shows that about 1.5 million Australians visited New Zealand in 2019, making up about 40% of all visitors and spending nearly the equivalent of $2 billion USD. And about 1.3 million New Zealanders visited Australia that year, accounting for about 15% of all visitors to Australia.
This arrangement has been months in the making after both New Zealand and Australia shut down their borders to most travelers at the start of the pandemic last spring. Compared with many other countries, the two have avoided the worst of the virus.
Australia has logged 29,543 cases and 910 deaths, while New Zealand only 2,596 cases and 26 deaths from the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.
However, the vaccine rollout in both countries has been slow to get started.
The new travel bubble is not without rules. For example, residents cannot have traveled outside of their country within 14 days and must be without COVID symptoms before departure. They also must continue to wear masks on flights.
Jennifer Nuzzo at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security says that while the travel bubble is a step toward normalcy, it's not without risks.
"It's not zero-risk to allow travel in and out of countries. And we've seen this most acutely in Australia where there have been a number of clusters found probably related to travel," she tells NPR. "So it is possible that both countries could see clusters here and there. But so far they've demonstrated a commitment to respond when they do occur."
Nuzzo says it would be difficult to create similar travel bubbles in countries such as the U.S., given that both Australia and New Zealand are much more geographically isolated.
Throughout the pandemic, various plans for travel bubbles have been discussed between countries and cities, including one among the Baltic states that was started, stopped and started again over the last year. Elsewhere in the Pacific, Taiwan and Palau launched their own no-quarantine travel bubble earlier this month.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
College-bound high schoolers are making their final deliberations ahead of May 1. That is the national deadline to pick a school. Now, because of the pandemic, many colleges dropped standardized testing requirements. And as for grades, with remote learning, some high schools are giving pass or fail grades instead of traditional GPAs. Meanwhile, those extracurriculars and sports that students usually use to help them stand out - nope, they've been disrupted too; all of which has added up to a very hectic year in college admissions offices, including schools in the University of California system, which received the most applications in the country. Well, Lisa Przekop is director of admissions at UC Santa Barbara, and she joins me now.
LISA PRZEKOP: Thank you. Thank you. It's good to be here.
KELLY: You've worked there in the admissions office at UC Santa Barbara for 36 years, I am told. So you've got the long view. How crazy has this year been?
PRZEKOP: Definitely the craziest of all my 36 years without a doubt.
KELLY: Wow. And in what ways? Just give us a little bit of a sense of what it's been like.
PRZEKOP: Well, we're dealing with a pandemic. All of my staff are working remotely. We had an increase in applications, pretty dramatically - about 16%. And on top of all of that, we had to devise a way of doing our admissions selection process without the use of SAT or ACT scores. So any one of those things would have been a major change, but to have all of them at the same time was beyond anything really that I could have imagined.
KELLY: Yeah. Has it all added up to more time spent on every individual application? - because it's just more complicated now than it has been in years past to try to figure out, should we let the student in or not?
PRZEKOP: The answer to that - quick answer is yes. Things are much more nuanced now. And although a student may have, for instance, planned to do certain activities, well, many of those activities were canceled. The other big difference was students were a lot more depressed this year, obviously, you know?
KELLY: Yeah. We all have been.
PRZEKOP: Right. You know, everybody's more anxious, including students. They're applying for college, which is stressful in and of itself. And so what we found is a lot of students used their essays to talk about depression, anxiety, things like this. To read essay after essay after essay about depression, anxiety, stress is taxing. And so we really had to encourage staff to take more breaks as they were reviewing, so it definitely slowed the whole process down at a time when we had more applications to review.
KELLY: Can you give any insight into what you are basing your decisions on this year?
PRZEKOP: Absolutely. Maybe in the past, I would have focused on that GPA right away. Now when I'm looking at that academic picture, I have to look at the fact that, did the student challenge themselves as much as they could have? Were the courses even available? Do I see any trends in their academic performance? If their spring term of last year, their junior year, was all pass, no pass, can I safely assume that they did well in those courses? And that's where you really had to rely on what the student shared in their essays to try to piece that together.
KELLY: OK. Are you noticing greater diversity in the students applying to UC?
PRZEKOP: In terms of ethnic diversity, yes, we are seeing that. In terms of diversity of experience - for instance, first-generation students and students with lots of different socioeconomic backgrounds - we're definitely seeing that. I'm seeing students who are very committed to the environment, more so than I've seen before. I'm seeing students who are more politically aware and active than I've seen before, so I'm definitely seeing a pattern of behaviors that look a little bit different than students in the past.
KELLY: Lisa Przekop, thank you very much.
PRZEKOP: You're very welcome.
KELLY: She is director of admissions at UC Santa Barbara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.