By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand welcomed thousands of travellers from around the globe on Monday as the country opened its borders to visitors from around 60 nations including the United States, Britain and Singapore for the first time since COVID-19 hit in early 2020.
Maori cultural performers sang songs at the arrivals gate in Auckland and travellers were handed popular locally made chocolate bars as the first flights came in from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Friends and family hugged and cried as people were reunited for what was for some the first time in more than two years.
Garth Halliday, who was waiting at the airport for his son, daughter-in-law and grandson to land from London, told local media it made him happy and emotional to see so many families reunited.
New Zealand had some of the toughest curbs in the world during the pandemic and only recently started to ease the increasingly unpopular measures, hoping to boost tourism and ease labour shortages now the Omicron variant is widespread domestically.
Borders were opened to New Zealanders and Australians in February and March. Now visitors from around 60 visa-waiver countries can enter as long as they are vaccinated and test negative for COVID. There are no requirements for isolation.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told attendees at the U.S. Business Summit in Auckland that overseas visitors will really "bring back a piece that has been missing from New Zealand and New Zealanders."
On Monday, 43 international flights were scheduled to arrive or depart from Auckland International Airport carrying around 9,000 passengers.
Air New Zealand Chief Customer and Sales Officer Leanne Geraghty said demand had exceeded expectations with many of the services filling up.
"This is welcome news for the New Zealand tourism industry who has weathered a difficult storm," she said.
Tourists from a number of countries including India and China continue to be barred with restrictions for them not being lifted until October.
(The story is updated to correct day of the week in first paragraph)
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Lincoln Feast)