Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heads offshore on Monday for the first time in over two years , eager to tell two rich Asian countries that New Zealand is no longer a fortress.
The trip to Japan and Singapore is her third attempt at heading overseas since the Covid pandemic first hit our shores – which ironically happened while Ardern was overseas on her last trip, in Australia.
A trip to Europe was in the works in 2021 but had to be called off as new Covid variants wreaked havoc, and another trip to Australia was called off as Delta raced through Australia. And foreign political considerations mean this trip has been slimmed down somewhat – there was talk of it including Korea, but the country is in the midst of a presidential transition currently, making a visit impolitic.
Ardern will spend Tuesday and Wednesday in Singapore and Thursday and Friday in Tokyo, with packed schedules every day.
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It’s been so long since the prime minister travelled that she had to have her diplomatic passport renewed.
Other world leaders have travelled during the pandemic, particularly in 2022, with some undergoing isolation on return to their countries. Ardern has come under some criticism for her lack of travel from National.
Ardern told travelling journalists in a pre-trip panel interview she would have been happy to undergo isolation herself – even two weeks in a managed isolation hotel – but no potential trip quite justified how long she would be stuck in various hotel rooms.
“I was always willing to take up the isolation period that would be required on return, but equally some of the markets we would wish to visit weren’t necessarily open to visit his or had border closures that were affecting them as well,” Ardern said.
“It would have been making sure that we can really justify the period it would have meant I was out of action, by hitting a lot of centres.”
She said the new prominence of Zoom calls and the like meant she actually felt more in touch with some parts of the world than before the pandemic.
Even this trip could still be shut down by Covid-19. Singapore and Japan require negative tests to enter the country – with Japan so strict that even a faint positive from a previous infection will see you barred. Ardern herself has yet to have Covid, so could end up in either Auckland or Singapore unable to travel to the next destination.
Her office itself has been hit with Omicron, necessitating a late switchup of the staff travelling with her.
Trade Minister Damien O’Connor is coming along on the trip, and is the backup option for the foreign engagements should Ardern be infected.
This potential for delays and cancellations adds to the one faced by prime ministers for years – the Air Force plane used for this kind of travel is prone to breakdowns and needs to be refuelled in Australia before making it to Singapore.
The message: NZ is open
Ardern is meeting with the prime ministers of Singapore and Japan, as is customary on such trips.
These meetings will see the prime minister talk about crucial issues for New Zealand, particularly the trans-Pacific trade pact (CPTPP) and supply chain resilience, given Singapore was a crucial hub for New Zealand through the pandemic.
With the United States’ exit from the CPTPP Japan is the largest economy and player in the pact – but Ardern said the possible re-entry of the US was likely to be one of the main topics.
“What we’ll be looking to do, of course, is talk through some of the other interests in that major trade agreement. I do think that that is ultimately where want to be looking when it comes to their trade aspirations in our region,” Ardern said.
This could prove tricky, as the US exit from the pact made it significantly easier for Ardern to sign New Zealand on, as it lessened the push for controversial pharmaceutical clauses Labour had opposed in the past.
Neither of the leaders share much of Ardern’s politics, both coming from the right, and in Singapore’s case from a party that has never been out of power.
But this is unlikely to cause much friction as the trip is solidly focused on trade and the economy.
Ardern is keen to tell these two wealthy countries that New Zealand is very much open for business and tourism.
Japan is the third-largest economy in the world and Singapore’s economy is huge for its size. They are New Zealand’s fourth and fifth-largest trading partners already, buying a lot of our food while we buy a lot of Japanese cars.
Both countries have “visa-waiver” arrangements with New Zealand meaning tourists will be able to enter from May 1 with no isolation period, although the Government doesn’t think that will mean an immediate return to the 160-odd thousand tourists who visited New Zealand from these countries in the years before the pandemic.
Ardern is taking a clutch of top businesspeople with her and will make multiple appearances in domestic media in both countries, and sit down for an interview with BBC World.
She is hoping that New Zealand’s relative success fighting Covid-19 will be a part of attracting tourists back, noting that 71 per cent of Singaporeans had heard some of sort of news about the response and three-quarters of those had developed a “more positive” view of New Zealand as a result of the news.
“For us this is a chance to be out there talking about the fact that New Zealand is open,” Ardern said.
She did not think that the current Omicron surge would hurt that image as many countries had experienced Omicron, and most trips took months to plan anyway.
“You can see from some of the analysis that what people have taken away is not just whether or not New Zealand is a safe environment in the here and now…but what they’ve taken from it is the values that New Zealand had. They see us as people who look after others, and that’s really important message to send to others.”
“Come to New Zealand and you’ll have a great experience because we look after our people and those people who come to visit us.”