SEOUL - The deal with Singapore to allow travel for the vaccinated is South Korea's second bilateral agreement aimed at reopening for tourism, after a travel bubble with Saipan kicked off in July.
Signed on Friday (Oct 8), the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) agreement between South Korea and Singapore will allow those who are fully vaccinated to travel between the two countries from Nov 15 without the need for quarantine.
Mr Kim Yong-seok, head of aviation policy at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), said the deal could be viewed as a symbol of trust between the two countries.
"Expanding the scope of travel will also serve as an opportunity for the airline and travel industries to overcome difficulties caused by the pandemic and meet people's demand for overseas travel, as well as revitalise tourism in South Korea," he added.
South Korea used to receive nearly three million foreign tourists a month in pre-pandemic days. That number plunged by 86 per cent last year.
Incheon Airport welcomed only 215,313 passengers flying to and from Singapore in 2020, down from 1.55 million in 2019.
Hanatour, one of South Korea's largest travel agencies, suffered a net loss of 120 billion won (S$136.3 million) last year.
Things started looking up for the industry in the middle of the year when infection numbers stabilised amid growing vaccination rates, and the South Korean government started to seek travel bubble deals with other countries in a bid to revive the sector.
Singapore was among those cited, but the first deal was with Saipan on June 30 and the first flight took off the following month for the tiny island.
Asiana Airlines, which operates a flight to Saipan once a week, said it expects the total number of visitors to the island to exceed 1,000 by the end of the year.
Industry observers said demand was not high due to group tour restrictions and the high cost of the three PCR tests required.
The deal with Singapore, however, will allow vaccinated travellers to move around freely within the city state.
South Koreans keen to visit Singapore will have to request for a Vaccinated Travel Pass at the Singapore Immigration and Checkpoints Authority's Safe Travel website from Nov 8 onwards and upload their vaccination certificate, according to MOLIT.
They will also need to submit a negative PCR test conducted 48 hours before departure, purchase travel insurance, and test negative upon landing. More details will be announced later.
Among those hoping to use the VTL is Ms Jamie Oh, managing director of the Korea office of a Singapore-based quantity surveying firm.
"I would like to meet my bosses in Singapore in person and update them about the progress in our Korea office. We can do this via e-mail and teleconferences but certain things like face-to-face meetings and real-time conversations are simply irreplaceable," said Ms Oh, 48, who last visited the city state in July 2019.
"Besides work, I am also looking forward to the Singapore warmth, Orchard Road retail therapy, and all the good food, like black pepper crab, chicken rice and lor mee."
Ms Oh acknowledged the pitfalls of travelling during a pandemic and said she intended to follow strict protocols on disease prevention.
"We have been living in the pandemic era for nearly two years now and have learnt to be more cautious about what we can and cannot do," she told The Straits Times.
"No one wants to carry the virus home with them."
Ms Chua Pei Chi, president of the Singapore Club Seoul, called the VTL "a great piece of news".
"Now that a date has been set, many Singaporeans who wanted to go home but could not afford the time can finally start planning for a trip back," she told ST, adding that she herself was looking forward to a trip home in November.
South Korea on Friday reported 2,176 Covid-19 cases. A total of 39.86 million people, or 77.6 per cent of the country's 51.3 million population, have received their first dose of a vaccine since February. Nearly 57 per cent are fully vaccinated.
The highest Level 4 or most restrictive social distancing measures are in place in the capital area, which, among other things, require restaurants and cafes to close at 10pm. Vaccinated people are allowed to gather in groups of up to six.