Emotions ran high as excited passengers set off on the first flights to take advantage of a quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, allowing families split when borders closed almost 400 days ago to finally reunite.

"(I'll) yell, scream, cry, hug, kiss, (feel) happy - all of these emotions at once," Denise O'Donoghue, 63, told AFP at Sydney airport as she prepared to board her flight.

The arrangement means that, for the first time since the pandemic closed borders worldwide, passengers can fly in either direction across the Tasman Sea without undergoing mandatory Covid-19 quarantine when they arrive.

"It's a very big day and exciting for families and friends," said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who hailed the success of both countries in containing the virus as a key factor in allowing the travel corridor.

Australia was New Zealand's largest source of international tourists before the pandemic, accounting for about 1.5 million arrivals or 40% of total visitors in 2019.

A mother and daughter reunite at Sydney International Airport

But on the first day of the bubble, most of the travellers were returning New Zealanders, with tourists expected to start arriving in large numbers during the upcoming Australian school holidays.

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The bubble's opening received saturation coverage from media in both countries, with live television reporting from airports providing regular updates on the progress of flights.

On a grass embankment at the foot of Wellington Airport's runway, the words 'WELCOME WHANAU' (family) were spelled out in giant letters.

In the airport terminal, Maori dancers performed a traditional powhiri welcoming ceremony for the arrivals.

Passengers arriving from Australia are greeted by friends and relatives at Auckland Airport

Lorraine Wratt, a New Zealander stranded by the pandemic while visiting family in Australia, told AFP it was "wonderful" to be able to travel again.

"We're very excited to be heading back home but we're gonna miss our family (in Australia) big time," she said.

"We came to Australia on 11 December to spend Christmas with our children ... planning to go back in February, it's been a bit of a nightmare."

Australia is home to hundreds of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders and before coronavirus, many regularly shuttled back and forth across the Tasman on three-hour flights.

A woman hugs a family member before their departure for New Zealand at Sydney International Airport

"It's like it's one big country, so it's very good to open the borders, it will help all the families," Mehat El Masri told AFP as he waited to see his Sydney-based son Shady for the first time in 16 months.

"We appreciate it. We're doing very well in New Zealand and Australia with precautions and keeping things under control ... we're fortunate compared to the rest of the world."

Air New Zealand executive Craig Suckling said the atmosphere at Sydney airport before departure was electric.

"It was quite the emotional rollercoaster here in Sydney," he said.

"The check-in area was a hive of activity and at the boarding gate, customers were eager to get on."

Australia has previously flagged the possibility of travel bubbles with Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, while New Zealand is working to allow unrestricted access to small Pacific states, such as the Cook Islands and Tuvalu.

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