A few months ago, travel bubbles were the big idea for reopening skies across the Asia-Pacific region. Countries would strike deals with each other to allow air travel with certain restrictions, many officials said, and those would expand to regional pacts.
It’s proving hard to do, even for countries that have largely managed to keep a lid on the coronavirus.
Take Singapore, a city-state whose economy is so dependent on its airport, officials liken it to the lungs. Passenger volumes are languishing at 1.5% of pre-coronavirus levels, threatening its status as an aviation hub and the investment that comes with it.
The region’s other airports are similarly quiet, according to the latest data from August. Hong Kong International Airport saw 1.4% of passenger traffic compared with August 2019. At Japan’s Narita airport, international travelers in August were just 3.3% of the same month last year. At South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, passenger volumes were 3.6%.
Across the region—which is home to many of the world’s top coronavirus-conquering countries—strict travel caution is seen as key to keeping the virus in check. Governments from China and Vietnam to Thailand and New Zealand, where the pandemic is under control, are loath to risk introducing new sources of infection from abroad, calculating that a Covid-19 resurgence would be worse than the economic harm caused by keeping borders shut.
As a result, countries have largely avoided opening up even to other low-risk countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Restarting relatively free travel to Europe and the U.S., where cases are high, remains a nonstarter for most.
Negotiations for travel bubbles have turned out to be slow and complex. It isn’t just about comparing infection rates, officials have found, but also working out tricky details, such as swapping 14-day quarantines with tests, agreeing to mutually acceptable testing standards and designating laboratories to issue fit-to-fly certificates.
In Hong Kong, officials have talked about 11 potential travel bubbles, but none have materialized. The city’s persistent cases of local transmission, in mostly single digits daily, have put a wrinkle in discussions with mainland China. Tourism-dependent Thailand hasn’t committed to bubbles amid worries that even a careful infusion of travelers could reverse its success in controlling the spread. Australia’s opening to New Zealand isn’t a bubble but a narrow one-way street.
Where fast-track options have emerged for business travel, the trips often involve multiple tests, some quarantine and lots of advance paperwork. Those wanting to fly for work from Japan to Singapore must be sponsored by a company in the city-state, get tested before departure and after arrival and declare an itinerary beforehand—and stick to it.
Short-term business travelers from South Korea to Japan can skip the two-week quarantine, but the list of conditions is long, including as many as four tests for a round-trip—within 72 hours before departure and at the airport upon arrival in both countries. Travelers can’t use public transport during the visit and for two weeks after returning. Tracing apps should be activated at all times.
International travel hasn’t really recovered except in Europe,
Macquarie Group Ltd.
’s wealth management division said in a September note. The European Union, eager to kick-start tourism, began opening its internal borders in June for the summer holidays. But that contributed to a coronavirus surge, and countries are snapping back curbs.
Passenger volumes at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in August were 29% of 2019 levels, and 22% at Frankfurt’s airport, data in Macquarie’s note showed.
For travel bubbles, even finding the right partner is fraught. Singapore, for instance, wants to bubble up with low-risk Vietnam, New Zealand and most of Australia. But these countries aren’t ready to open to visitors from Singapore, which has averaged 4.6 locally transmitted cases a day in the past two weeks. New Zealand and Vietnam have recorded no such cases for weeks.
Taking matters into its own hands, Singapore created half-bubbles. It has unilaterally waived the 14-day quarantine for business travelers and tourists from these countries, though visitors must still take a test on arrival. The opening acts as a “standing offer” to their governments to reciprocate and a way to avoid lengthy bilateral talks, Singapore officials have said, while acknowledging the program isn’t likely to attract a flood of visitors.
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Australian citizens aren’t even allowed to leave their country unless they apply for a special exemption. Travelers from these countries to Singapore would need to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel or state facility on return.
It might work for one-way travelers such as Nick Vanderkolk, a 34-year-old New Zealand dairy commodities trader and resident of Singapore for the past six years. He flew to Auckland with his wife in March for the birth of their first baby. Then the New Zealand border closed and they were stuck for months, living with his wife’s parents, until Singapore opened up to New Zealanders on Sept. 8.
Two days later, they boarded a flight to Singapore, where they were tested on arrival and taken in a designated taxi to their home, where they quarantined until they received the negative result eight hours later. Mr. Vanderkolk said they made the decision to travel with some trepidation, knowing it would be difficult to return to New Zealand with mandatory quarantine still in place and a long queue to get a spot.
Australia and New Zealand began discussing a two-way bubble in May. Five months later, only three Australian regions have agreed to let New Zealand residents in without quarantine. Announcing the change this month, Australia’s deputy prime minister said New Zealanders would be welcome to come across, “pick our fruit, shear our sheep, fall in love.”
“Shearing and finding love? Absolutely!” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of the plan. But she said the country’s residents would still face a mandatory two-week, $2,000 hotel quarantine on their return. New Zealand has yet to reciprocate the welcome to Australians.
Flights have been on sale for a few days and Australia’s main airline,
says demand is only steady and mostly involves inbound travelers returning to Australia.
China imposed strict restrictions in March when it banned most foreigners from entering the country. Last month it eased those restrictions by announcing that foreign residents of China who have been stuck abroad could start to return. Returnees must still take a test before traveling and quarantine for 14 days after landing in China.
Hundreds of foreign business people from the U.S. and elsewhere have managed to return to China in recent months, but after obtaining a complex series of permits and a seat on a flight, and then undergoing a two-week quarantine. Flights have been expensive and in short supply, with tens of thousands of Chinese students still trying to return home.
—Miho Inada in Tokyo and Trefor Moss in Shanghai contributed to this article.
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