The big hole in our border reopening that could cost millions

Brook Sabin is a Stuff travel reporter.

OPINION: Imagine this: I’m a backpacker on a budget. I’ve been waiting to explore New Zealand for years, and nothing will stop me now the border is reopening.

After a few days of discovering the South Island, I get a tickle in my throat. I’m staying in dorms on a strict daily budget – shall I just ignore it? Could it be Covid? I’m not going to find out; I can’t afford to leave the dorms and buy a room for a week if I need to isolate.

As the week gets on, I get increasingly sick. Should I visit a doctor? But what if they send me to a hospital? There’s no way I can afford that. I’ll just keep going.

One of the easiest ways to cull a few low-quality tourists is to make travel insurance compulsory.

Douglas Bagg/UNSPLASH

One of the easiest ways to cull a few low-quality tourists is to make travel insurance compulsory.

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As our border progressively reopens in the coming months, starting with Australian citizens and permanent residents from 11:59pm April 12, scenarios like this will play out.

There is a simple solution that can go some way towards addressing the problem: compulsory travel insurance.

The Government has spent years talking up a tourism reset, with a focus on quality, not quantity, in our Covid recovery.

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash said last month: “We’re unlikely to see an immediate return to 2019 levels, but nor should we want to – it was unsustainable, and some of our communities were bearing the brunt of its impact.”

One of the easiest ways to cull a few low-quality tourists is to make travel insurance compulsory. Popular tourist destinations such as Fiji, Sri Lanka, Chile and Indonesia already have, and require proof of travel insurance before you’re allowed into the country – and we should follow suit.

Many travel insurance policies now offer unlimited Covid medical care when overseas, and some include isolation costs – meaning travelers would be covered to isolate in a hotel.

Before Covid-19, New Zealand already had a problem with foreigners not paying hospital bills. An estimated $630 million was not recovered from “ineligible” patients between the years 2000 and 2010. A number of those were tourists who went home without paying the bill. That could have paid for a lot of ICU capacity, which we suddenly found ourselves short of as Covid hit.

There could be a case for exempting travelers from Australia and the United Kingdom – as we have a reciprocal health care agreement with each country already, meaning some hospital costs are covered. But for everyone else, you’d need Covid-19 insurance to enter.

Our ability to live with Covid is directly linked with our health system, which we all went into lockdown to help protect.

Even now, more than two years since the start of the pandemic, our daily lives continue to face restrictions to ease pressure on the health system. Surely, as our border reopens, we should ask tourists to show similar respect by having insurance.

And if they don’t want to – that’s no loss to us. It’s not the kind of tourist we want here anyway.

What do you think? Should foreign tourists have to have compulsory travel insurance? Let us know in the comments below.

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