WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — About 100,000 tourists stuck in New Zealand since it began a lockdown last week were starting to fly to their home countries Friday.
The initial problem for many tourists had been that they were banned from catching domestic flights during the strict monthlong lockdown, which is aimed at preventing more coronavirus infections. The domestic flight ban prevented tourists from reaching the country's main hub of Auckland Airport to catch international flights home.
But Foreign Minister Winston Peters announced Thursday that tourists could catch internal flights, so long as they were leaving the country. He said charter flights organized by foreign countries would also be allowed alongside regular commercial flights.
Officials said 37,000 tourists had signed up with their various embassies seeking to return home, although Peters said in an interview with radio station RNZ that the true number seeking to leave was about 100,000.
Air New Zealand said the first of several flights chartered by the German government to repatriate stranded Germans left Friday afternoon from Auckland bound for Frankfurt via Vancouver, Canada. The German Embassy in Wellington last week said more than 12,000 had signed up for its repatriation program.
British High Commissioner Laura Clarke said 10,000 British tourists had registered with her office wanting to return home.
“So even if we were to have chartered flights, we would still need commercial flights as well,” Clarke said in a video she posted on Twitter.
While most of the stranded tourists are from the U.K. and Europe, officials said about 2,700 tourists from Asia and 3,800 from North and South America combined had also signed up to be repatriated.
“Listen, we get it,” said U.S. Ambassador Scott Brown in a video message. “We've gotten your calls, your emails, your texts. We understand. And we know that you are worried about getting home. And we're doing our very, very, very best to help.”
American tourist Lisa Horvath told RNZ that the news she would soon be able to return home and see her dog had come as a huge relief. She said she could now enjoy her walks in New Zealand, which are allowed under the lockdown rules.
“I feel like I can enjoy those places instead of resenting being here, which is kind of the space that I was getting in emotionally,” she said. “I was so desperate to find out when I was getting home.”
Peters said that Qatar Airways flights from New Zealand to Europe were increasing from one to two per day.
New Zealand has recorded 868 cases of COVID-19 and one death from the disease. About half of the cases have been linked to overseas travelers returning home, and the country has so far avoided a major local outbreak.
New Zealand's lucrative tourism industry, which was the nation's single biggest earner of foreign income, has ground to a halt due to the virus outbreak. Tourism New Zealand estimates the industry accounted for about 10% of the nation's GDP and employed 230,000 people.