With hugs and tears families were reunited at Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport, after arriving on an Air New Zealand, the first flight as Tonga re-opened its international border on Monday 01 August.
Most of the Tongan passengers said of their happiness of being able to return home at last, over two-years after Tonga closed its international borders.
Joy was in the air. A grandmother and mother Mele Tuiila exclaimed loudly that she was very happy to be back home.
Another passenger Siosaia Filikitonga said this was his first visit to Tonga in over two-years, due to the pandemic. “I am happy and emotional to come to Tonga. Once Tonga announced the border re-opening I booked to come. I am happy,” he said, as he was met by relatives at the airport.
Lu’isa Sakalia, from Ma’ufanga, who was waiting for her brother-in-law Fisimanu and young nephew to arrive, said families are happy to reunite. She kissed her young nephew and held him tight.
Fisimani said it was just good to be able to travel back to Tonga and visit family.
‘Etu Palu, visiting with his mother Finau said, “it’s good to be back”
Incoming passengers from today onwards have zero quarantine for the first time since 2020.
Ministry of Tourism officials were waiting to present the new arrivals with kahoa, while a string band played.
Sione Moala-Mafi, CEO, Ministry of Tourism, was there to welcome the incoming passengers.
“I’m so glad that the border’s open and that facilitates the travel between Tonga and the outside world, especially, New Zealand, ” he said. “I can see there are a lot of foreign visitors are arrive on the flight as well as Tongans.”
One flight each from New Zealand (Air New Zealand) and Australia (Quantas) follow on Thursday with one from Fiji (Fiji Airways) on Tuesday and Saturday.
“So other travellers from from outside the region can come through either one of those countries.
“We are happy to welcome them. They are free to book their own tickets and IATA and other airlines have been informed and especially those who do not have direct flights to Tonga.”
Tonga is taking a cautious staged approach to re-opening its border by limiting the number of incoming flights this month under the new Open Border Policy Framework announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on 22 July.
They will review the number of flights and cruise ships for September and October, and all incoming passengers must be vaccinated and have negative COVID-19 tests before departure and within 3-5 days after arrival.
“In October there will be six flights a week, which is every day except Sunday,” said Moala-Mafi.
The government’s National Emergency Management Committee will decide when to go to green. “But it looks like we are progressing towards it. Orange now and it has to be reviewed at the end of this month,” he said.
For the meantime, yachts and super yachts are not included in the border re-opening, much to the frustration of tourism operators, who say July with its fantastic weather is the peak season in Tonga for yachts, and the superyachts don’t need the coastal accommodation that Tongatapu lost in the tsunamis.
“I’ve got 20 boats sitting in Tahiti that want to come to Tonga, twenty. Big boats, I’m not talking about little yachts because they won’t let the yachts come back in here and I don’t know why,” said David Hunt owner of Super Yacht Services Tonga.
He was waiting at the airport to meet a yacht owner who had not seen his yacht moored in Vava’u for over three years.
“Before the pandemic we were averaging about 30 to 35 yachts a years between operators, but it could be much more this year. They’ve got all these boats coming down to the Pacific they don’t want to be in Ukraine, in the Mediterranean.
“July is fantastic weather in Tonga. But they leave in October before the cyclone season.”
Moala-Mafi said they had not decided yet on the yachts: “we are still finalising the policy framework for the cruise ships. Meanwhile, super yachts are still in the pipeline. We don’t forget them but they are in the pipeline,” he said.
Meanwhile, the current night time curfew due to COVID-19 remains but will be re reviewed this month, after Government approved the incremental border re-opening on 01 August.
Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni, in a press conference said that the curfew will remain from midnight to 5am, and the wearing of masks in public places is still in force with the COVID “Orange” status.
“As has been advised the progressive opening will be monitored closely and reviewed as we move forward”
Two flights a week from Fiji and New Zealand and once a week from Australia started on 1 August, and passengers will not have to undergo Managed Isolation Quarantine (MIQs).
The progressive opening was approved as COVID-19 is cases continue to decrease in Tonga.
The Minister for Health, Dr Saia Piukala said there are no COVID-19 patients being hospitalised at this time.
“We are thankful to all our people and stakeholders who have been responsible and worked together to ensure that we were able to come through the COVID-19 challenge.”
He said vaccination rates stand at 98% for the first dose, 91% for the second dose and 59% for booster.
Health CEO Dr Siale ‘Akauola said all foreigners who plan to travel to Tonga must have travel insurance.
All visitors and returning citizens will need to follow COVID-19 Health Guidelines including wearing masks, washing of hands regularly with sanitisers and keeping social distancing, he said.
“Tongan citizens who have not been fully vaccinated can also return home but they will need to advise the Ministry of Health and also pay for their own quarantine at Government approved quarantine facilities.”
There are also other health protocols that must be followed by passengers before and after arriving as announced in Government’s Open Border Policy Framework.
SOURCE: TONGA WIRES/PACNEWS