No need to swim: Germans stuck in New Zealand fly home

NICK PERRY
1 / 9

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak New Zealand Tourists

Foreign tourists wait to be checked by German Embassy staff at Christchurch Airport terminal as they prepare to check in for a charter flight back to Germany via Vancouver from Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday, April 6, 2020. The German Embassy in Wellington last week said more than 12,000 German tourists had signed up for its repatriation program from New Zealand following the strict monthlong lockdown, which is aimed at preventing more coronavirus infections. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — German tourist Steffen Schmieg joked on Monday that his last option for getting home from New Zealand was to swim.

Schmieg is among an estimated 100,000 tourists who found themselves stranded in New Zealand after it went into a strict lockdown 12 days ago in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Late last week, officials relaxed the rules enough to allow tourists to begin catching connecting domestic flights and for charter flights to start operating.

About 12,000 Germans have signed up for a repatriation program and on Monday, Schmieg joined dozens of other Germans at the Christchurch Airport to catch a flight back to Frankfurt. The flight was chartered by the German government.

Schmieg, 26, said he traveled to New Zealand a month ago to visit a friend and tour the country. He managed to see his friend in time but has been holed up at an Airbnb since the lockdown began.

“I've been doing nothing,” he said. “Chilling, relaxing, eating too much.”

He said New Zealand was a safe place to stay and he was never too worried about getting home: “It's been sweet as,” he said, using a local phrase that means everything is okay.

Fellow German Katharina Genz, 20, said she arrived in New Zealand in late October and watched as the virus spread around the world.

“I tried to get a flight, but it was delayed, and then canceled,” she said. “Of course I was worried. But New Zealand has handled it pretty well, way better than Germany.”

She said she is eager to get home to help out her family, although she's dreading a planned period of self-isolation in her father's empty apartment in Berlin before she can see them.

About as many British tourists as Germans have registered with officials as they also try to get home.

But unlike Germany, Britain's government is not planning any charter flights from New Zealand or Australia at this point, and is instead encouraging people to book one of the few commercial flights that are still available.

British High Commissioner Laura Clarke said affordability has been a real issue, with some people who have already lost money on their trips facing quotes of up to $3,000 for a ticket home.

She said she and her staff have been trying to negotiate with the airlines and to help the most vulnerable get home, including the elderly, young children and those with health issues. She said they're also trying to prioritize those who work for Britain's National Health Service.

Clarke said not everybody trying to get home has signed up with them, and they estimate as many as 22,000 Britons are in that position. She said about 1,000 British tourists have secured flights home over the past week.

New Zealand has recorded 1,106 cases of COVID-19 and one death from the illness. About 40% of the cases have been linked to overseas travelers returning home, and the country has so far avoided a major local outbreak.

New Zealand’s lucrative tourism industry, which was the nation’s single biggest earner of foreign income, has ground to a halt due to the global pandemic. Tourism New Zealand estimates the industry accounted for about 10% of the nation’s GDP and employed 230,000 people.