Golden ticket: the lucky tourists sitting out coronavirus in New Zealand | Coronavirus | The Guardian
Visitors from UK and North America tell of finding themselves with a pass to one of the best-rated pandemic responses in the world.For Christmas 2019 Efrain Vega de Varona gave his partner plane tickets to New Zealand – her dream holiday destination. It has proved a gift that keeps on giving.
A year later they are still in New Zealand, having decided to stay put at the end of their two-week holiday in mid-March rather than return to Los Angeles. “We’ve been living out of two suitcases for 10 months,” says Vega de Varona from their latest Airbnb rental (number 50-something this year) in Island Bay, Wellington.The couple were among an estimated 250,000 overseas visitors in New Zealand just before the national lockdown and border restrictions in mid-March. Most returned home as restrictions lifted in subsequent months, but when the government extended temporary visas some decided they were better off where they were. By mid-May there were an estimated 120,000 temporary visa holders in New Zealand, among them tourists from the UK and North America who found themselves unexpectedly far from home – but with a pass to one of the best-rated pandemic responses in the world.After their flight to LA was cancelled and New Zealand went into lockdown, Vega de Varona and his partner, Ingrid Rivera, settled in the South Island coastal town of Kaikōura, where they helped to deliver groceries to local elderly people. Vega de Varona admits he had to be persuaded to stay on after the six-week lockdown. “Ingrid was the smarter one who said ‘This is the place to be – we’re not going back.’”
The couple sold their home and cars in LA and spent 2020 travelling New Zealand while working on their motorhome rental business remotely. Rivera now plans to enrol to study, extending their visas; and they are exploring ways to put down roots by starting a business.“It’s just starting to feel like home to us,” says Vega de Varona.
But as fortunate as they feel to have chanced upon a “golden ticket” through the pandemic, says Rivera, it has been tempered by fears for their loved ones in the US and Puerto Rico: “It’s obviously a completely different story for them.” Dr Tom Frieden, a US infectious disease expert and public physician, highlighted the stakes this week, tweeting that an American in New Zealand had a 200-times reduced risk of dying from Covid. Indeed, inquiries in emigrating to New Zealand from America climbed by 65% during May alone – representing interest from 80,000 individuals.For Eric Denman and Michelle Paulson, on holiday in New Zealand in March, the threat of going back to San Francisco was prohibitive. Paulson has lupus, putting her at elevated risk of coronavirus, so they decided to stay in Christchurch for lockdown. “We had a lot more faith in the New Zealand government in their ability to handle a pandemic – which turned out to be well founded,” she says.