Many New Zealanders are relieved on Monday.

Particularly those who had been stranded abroad since the start of the pandemic when New Zealand's border restrictions were among the toughest in the world.

At Auckland airport, the reunion was often accompanied by tears of joy on Monday.

Relatives were reuniting with loved ones allowed to enter the country without mandatory quarantine in hotels, for the first time in nearly two years.

An “important step”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called the change welcome, especially for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders abroad eager to return home.

"We look forward to seeing you," Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Wellington, adding that it was an "important step for our tourism sector and our regional economies."

Until now, expatriate New Zealanders entering the country had to undergo 10 days of isolation in expensive hotels.

This requirement was dropped on Monday for New Zealanders arriving from Australia and will be extended to all expats on Friday.

Jacinda Ardern said arrivals will not have to self-isolate, as originally planned.

Spread of the Omicron variant

She also said the government plans to speed up the gradual reopening of the border to all travellers, although no timetable has yet been set.

Jacinda Ardern said the rapid spread of the Omicron variant meant the impact of open borders on case numbers was less significant, allowing restrictions to be lifted sooner.

Tight border controls have been a key part of New Zealand's success in battling the coronavirus, with just 56 deaths recorded for a population of five million.

The Omicron outbreak has intensified in recent weeks, with 14,657 new cases reported on Monday.

The prime minister said the country's high vaccination rate of around 95 per cent "provides strong protective coverage".

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