KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) between Malaysia and Singapore opens on Monday (Nov 29), but even at this late stage, there will be challenges to overcome.
The first batch of Malaysians will be crossing over to Singapore without having to undergo quarantine, the first such initiative with a foreign country. These 4,000-plus travellers will be the pioneers of the VTL via land and air travel.
Under the VTL, those who are fully vaccinated will be able to travel between Singapore and Malaysia, and be subject to Covid-19 tests in lieu of serving quarantine.
For those like Amelia Lim who have not been able to shuttle back and forth due to prolonged border closures, the VTL-Air scheme is welcome news.
"I haven't been able to see my family and friends for almost two years, so when the announcement was made, I booked my flight on Malaysia Airlines and I managed to get a spot on the first VTL flight on Nov 29," she said.
Lim, who works for a regional startup, was one of the lucky ones who secured a seat at a reasonable price. Her return flight costs RM800 (S$260), but a check on the websites of the six airlines allowed to operate the air VTL shows that there has been a significant spike in demand and in some cases fares have risen to almost three times as much now.
The six airlines are Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia, Malindo, Jetstar, Singapore Airlines and Scoot.
Singapore and Malaysia currently have in place the Periodic Commuting Arrangement, which allows work pass holders to travel between the two countries.
But under this arrangement, commuters are required to serve quarantine upon entering both countries. The VTL means that there is no quarantine requirement and workers can potentially travel home more often to see their family members.
As for the VTL-Land, at the moment this can only be utilised by Malaysian and Singaporean citizens and permanent residents and long-term pass holders who are employed or working in Singapore or in Johor Baru.
For the time being, only designated buses can be used for travel by road, although there are plans to allow travel by train early next year. The number of people using the VTL-Land has been capped at a daily quota not exceeding 1,500 commuters but this number is expected to rise incrementally.
But besides travel fares, commuters must also consider the costs of Covid-19 tests. You are required to show proof of a PCR test (in Singapore's case, even RTK is allowed) 48 hours prior to arrival. And at the point of entry, you are once again supposed to do a PCR test (Singapore again allows for the cheaper RTK test).
At the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you will be asked to wait for up to three hours for the test results whereas in Singapore, you can leave for your place of residence prior to being informed of your test results.
These tests aren't cheap. Travellers can expect to fork out between RM1,200 and RM1,600 for multiple tests for a round trip. And this is minus the compulsory travel insurance that must be purchased.
A dry run was held at both sides of the border on Tuesday involving immigration and health department personnel. And there are already teething problems prior to the VTL launch.
Singapore Airlines apologised on Tuesday for confusion caused by an email to customers that contained information about quarantine requirements for passengers on VTL flights to Malaysia.
"Passengers are subject to medical screening and quarantine for seven or 10 days at the first point of entry at their own expense," the email stated. Needless to say, this email was quickly withdrawn and the airline apologised for the misinformation.
Singapore's safe travel website for commuters to apply for vaccinated travel passes crashed because nearly 35,000 users tried to log in at the same time. The authorities blamed the crash on the high volume of traffic as well as configuration errors.
Hopefully, these teething problems are resolved and safe travel to Singapore and vice versa is resumed soon because both countries have much to lose if the borders are closed or restricted.
It's not only tourism that suffers. Singapore and Malaysia have strong business ties, with more than 100,000 Malaysians living and working in Singapore. But since Malaysia closed its borders last March, families on both sides of the border have been separated for nearly 20 months.
Before the pandemic, the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur air route was the world's busiest international air link, operated by eight carriers with an average of 82 flights a day.
- The writer is the managing editor of The Star. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.