New Zealand will fully reopen its international borders from July 31,  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday, marking the end of one of the toughest border regimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement means borders will open two months earlier than the government’s timetable for lifting its remaining pandemic restrictions.

New Zealand earlier this month began welcoming tourists from more than 50 countries including the United States, Canada, Britain and Japan for the first time in more than two years, after earlier lifting restrictions on visitors from Australia and Europe.

Most visitors and returning citizens must still provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 result before departure.

Speaking at a lunch hosted by Business NZ in Auckland, Ardern said reopening the borders would help alleviate skills shortages, revive tourism and put immigration on a more secure footing.

“We are building on our proven plan to secure New Zealand’s economic future,” Ardern said.

New Zealand relied heavily on strict border controls to manage COVID-19. While the South Pacific country has reported fewer than 850 deaths throughout the pandemic, its isolation inflicted a heavy toll on industries such as tourism and left thousands of New Zealanders stranded overseas. 

“I think many New Zealanders are looking forward to travelling internationally again and welcoming tourists here,” Michael Plank, a statistics expert at the University of Canterbury whose modelling informed the government’s pandemic strategy.