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.’”
Rivera says: “I definitely believed more in the [New Zealand] government than our own – and time has proven me right, unfortunately.”
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.
‘Like watching a horror movie’
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.
When their flight home was cancelled for the second time, in July, “that was sort of the breaking point”, says Denman. The couple rented a house in Auckland and started working to turn their weeks-long holiday into a permanent move. In October they were granted two-year work visas, which they hope will lead to residency.
Their dogs joined them in their new home this week, with their belongings to follow. It was an unexpected move, they say – but “it’s the hand that we were dealt”, says Denman. “And it’s a lucky hand,” adds Paulson.
Their families’ support for their move (plus “definitely a bit of envy”) tells them it was the right decision, she says – though it has been painful to watch from afar the pandemic unfolding in the US. “Our day-to-day life is a reminder that it didn’t have to be that way.”
Setting aside the question of government competence, Denman says, New Zealanders’ rule-abiding nature and concern for the collective set them apart from the “rugged individualism” of the US and UK. “By and large everybody locked down and did everything they were supposed to.”
By contrast, says Nicole Gustas, a digital marketer from Boston, the situation in the US and UK has exceeded her worst fears. “The experience of being here in NZ and watching the rest of the world – except for Taiwan, Korea, a few other places – has been like watching a horror movie, when you’re shouting: ‘Don’t go in! … ‘You’re not in a lockdown, the malls are full!’”
Gustas and her partner had been approaching the end of a two-month working holiday in New Zealand in mid-March when their departure was cancelled. An old friend in Wellington invited them to live with her for the lockdown. “We did not realise it was going to be 54 days – and yet we are all still friends,” says Gustas. “We’re so grateful to them – and to New Zealand.”
The government’s response not only highlighted to her “what a lockdown really is” but the false dichotomy of saving lives or the economy, with the economy bouncing back from recession earlier this month. “New Zealand is a very capitalist country, they just made a decision to put lives first.”
With her visa set to expire in March, Gustas has been busy spending on domestic tourism and hospitality “as a way to show our appreciation” – though she knows to exercise discretion when calling loved ones in the US and UK.
“We went to the movies, to dinner, to this winery, the beach – we’re able to do all this stuff that no one else has the option to do … Even from call to call, people will want to hear what it is like in a normal country, and then in the next call, they’re just crushed.”
But their advice has been consistent, says Gustas. “Everyone we know in the US has told us – don’t come back.”