I Visited New Zealand After the Country Dropped Its COVID-19 Restrictions — Here's What It's Like

Wonderfully, the same.

Cliffs on New Zealand

Courtesy of Alison Fox

On a recent trip to New Zealand, after pandemic restrictions had released its grasp on the country, I found that the one-of-a-kind experiences that filled my days were of course, incredible but surprisingly, normal.

In the past, this wouldn’t even be worth noting. But for more than two years, New Zealand was known for having some of the most restrictive border rules in the world, locking down and letting hardly anyone in. In May, the country finally opened to the world with strict protocols in place before dropping nearly all pandemic-related rules in September, no longer requiring vaccines, tests, or even masks.

“It's been an interesting transition and somewhat delayed behind the rest of the world. Thankfully, we're at the other side now where the restrictions have, more or less, been removed,” James Mackay, the lodge manager at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, told me over breakfast. “International travel has returned, which is fantastic for us and New Zealand tourism as a whole. And I think people have, by and large, sort of moved past COVID and they want to return to that sense of normality.”

This month, the country went a step further, dropping a final COVID-19-related travel rule, no longer requiring people to complete a traveler declaration before coming.

My stay at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, a 6,000-acre luxury lodge in Hawke’s Bay, was filled with exploring the rolling green hills and following families of sheep, and drinks and canapés at the lodge.

New Zealand

Courtesy of Alison Fox

Later in the week, I headed to Queenstown on the country's South Island, trading bucolic hillside vistas for snow-capped mountains and crisp air. There, I bundled up in a heavy sweatshirt and sipped local beer around a fire pit, shopped for kiwi-themed gifts for my nephews in town, and watched the sky turn a deep pink as the sunset over Lake Wakatipu. 

Throughout the pandemic, outdoor activities have always felt safer no matter where in the world you are and that was definitely true for the ski mountains around Queenstown. At The Remarkables, ski area manager Ross Lawrence told me the mountain actually had its two busiest days ever on record in 2021. But, like many around the world, Lawrence said the ski resort is dealing with the challenges of staffing shortages.

“What was amazing for me was… that Kiwis who either had never been here or hadn't been here for 20 years, came back and started going, ‘wow, it's amazing what you've got here,’” Lawrence said. “COVID is still out there for sure and people are still getting hit. The feeling is that it’s passed through… [and] certainly nothing like it was and so let’s get on with life.” 

However, he noted, their "biggest restriction" right now is lack of staff and struggle to meet the current demand.

“What is nice is that the public are understanding," he said.

Ski mountain in New Zealand.

Courtesy of Alison Fox

Sitting in the busy cafeteria on a warm Saturday afternoon, I could hardly tell the pandemic was a strain as skiers and snowboarders hustled about, soaking in the last few days of New Zealand’s spring ski season and the breathtaking alpine views. Back in town, the restaurants were busy and the bars were packed, as locals and visitors alike took advantage of the weekend.

That sense of normality wasn’t just true in the relative rural solitude of Hawke’s Bay or in the fresh mountain air of Queenstown, but also in the busy city of Auckland where the streets were bustling and I watched people going about their daily lives with hardly a mask in sight. 

“The last couple of months have been wonderful — the last couple of years, not so much,” said Jacqui Wilkinson, one of the founders of Fine Art Tours NZ, adding dropping all restrictions may help people who had a “slight hesitation” finally pull the trigger on a trip. “I think it will make more people think, ‘oh, it's an attractive option now,’ for sure.” 

Vineyard in New Zealand

Courtesy of Alison Fox

Wilkinson told me this as we made our way back to the city on a packed ferry from Waiheke Island, a small island about an hour’s ride from Auckland. Dubbed “the island of wine,” Waiheke is dotted with dozens of vineyards and wineries, artist’s studios, and quaint coffee shops with enough small-town charm to make anyone feel as if they’ve stepped into a Hallmark movie.

I felt that same sense of normality at every vineyard and every boutique, every restaurant, and in every airport throughout my time in New Zealand. The feeling, once boring and expected, was now both a novelty and a comfort as I explored a country finally ready and happy to welcome tourists back.

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