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As Vanuatu celebrates its 40th Independence anniversary this week, the government has announced plans for a travel bubble that will link it with New Zealand and other COVID-19 free countries in the region.
The official declaration on the 'Tamtam Bubble' will be made this Thursday, which is Independence Day, but Vanuatu's business community is already welcoming the initiative as "critical" for the economy but some others are far less enthusiastic and are worried that it could open the door to coronvirus.
The plan is to link Vanuatu with New Zealand and other countries that are free from COVID-19 for the past 30 days.
Vanuatu's Council of Ministers has endorsed the plan as way to boost economic recovery from double blow of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and category five Cyclone Harold back in April.
The Chairman of Vanuatu's Business Resilience Council Glen Craig, who's also part of the technical team helping the Vanuatu government on the plans, says the Tamtam Bubble is vital for the economy.
“It's absolutely critical, just like most of the Pacific, we're in dire financial straits. We've seen instances now where people literally do not have staple food items,” Craig told Pacific Beat.
Craig says Vanuatu stands to benefit from the travel bubble in two key ways: tourism and also seasonal workers being sent to Australia.
But one key question is whether Australia will be part of the bubble, given the latest COVID-19 outbreaks in the states of Victoria and New South Wales.
“When Australia says it's ready to have tourists out and come back, then Vanuatu needs to be ready for that. But that decision is a sovereign decision for Australia,” Craig said.
“At the moment Vanuatu would see them as a risk, particularly states like Victoria. I wouldn't see that in the next couple of months, there'd be instances where we'd accept visitors from there,” he said.
It's these cases that have many in Vanuatu worried about the prospects of opening country's border.
Jotham Napat, an opposition member of parliament, said that while he supports the idea of travel bubble, he doesn't think Vanuatu is ready for it right now.
“I don't think the government is ready for that. I have note seen any plan, I'm assuming the government will...at a later stage to actually introduce what sort of criteria and conditions that enable this bubble to materialise,” Napat said.
Napat says there is a lack of test kits and facilities for visitors from Australia and New Zealand.
“It's not really safe because we don't really know. We are dealing with a pandemic that is very difficult to have a control of,” he told Pacific Beat.
But Glen Craig thinks criticism of the Tamtam Bubble are premature.
“I encourage people to wait until the final decisions come out and the guidelines and the principles. Wait and see what New Zealand does and New Caledonia and the other countries who might accept visitors from, wait and see what they say,” he said.
New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that New Zealand is committed to supporting Pacific countries and would extend its Safe Travel Zone once it was safe to do so.
A spokesman said negotiations with Australia were continuing for a Trans-Tasman Bubble and it was expected that Pacific countries would also be added to this safe zone.
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