Coronavirus: How the region is responding to Singapore's idea of air travel bubbles

Visitors entering the departure hall of Changi Airport. Singapore is planning to start talks on air travel bubbles with countries and territories that have managed the Covid-19 pandemic well. Tourists and other travellers who come in under this proposed arrangement will be tested for the coronavirus, but would not have to be quarantined or follow a fixed itinerary, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said last week. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Singapore is looking to form air travel bubbles with countries and territories that have managed the Covid-19 pandemic well. While most of them have some form of arrangement for business and official travel, especially within their own borders, many are reluctant to open up for mass travel as nations battle a resurgence of the coronavirus. Straits Times correspondents Elizabeth Law, Katherine Wei, Jonathan Pearlman, Chang May Choon, Claire Huang, Tan Hui Yee, Walter Sim and Eileen Ng report on how the region has responded to Singapore's proposal to form air travel bubbles.


China is the first country with which Singapore established a reciprocal green lane arrangement - to facilitate essential business and official travel between both countries - in late May. While the world's second-largest economy has gradually relaxed rules to allow certain business travellers and foreigners with residential permits back into the country, it has stopped short of fully reopening its borders.

China will "expand the scale of foreign personnel movements gradually", but virus control and public health remain priorities, the Foreign Ministry said.

The pandemic is largely under control in the country, with most of the dozen or so daily reported cases imported.

Travel firms are especially keen to resume international travel, particularly to places with zero cases.


As Taiwan is focused on ensuring that its Covid-19 tally remains low (it has 527 cases and has not recorded a local one in months), its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said any travel arrangements between Taiwan and Singapore will depend on Singapore's "epidemic control status".

The ministry said it will continue to monitor relevant information and epidemic developments closely, and keep the Central Epidemic Command Centre informed accordingly. Future discussions will be held based on the centre's decision.


Australia and New Zealand have been cautious about relaxing travel restrictions and have not announced any plans to remove curbs on travellers arriving from Singapore.

On Oct 8, Singapore began allowing Australians - except those from Victoria - to enter without undergoing quarantine. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stoked excitement yesterday after saying that Australia is in talks with several countries, including Singapore, on resuming travel.

Ms Kate Baldock, executive director of AustCham Singapore, said the resumption of travel would help businesses in both countries a great deal. "There is much to learn from the way Singapore is reopening its borders in a post-Covid landscape. We welcome the comments from PM Morrison and hope to see travel resume between Singapore and Australia in the near future."

New Zealand is unlikely to lift its border restrictions soon. It bars access to non-citizens and non-residents, and requires those allowed to enter the country to quarantine themselves.


South Korea already has a green lane arrangement for business travellers from Singapore since early last month, and South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it will consider opening up to other travellers after ensuring the "smooth implementation" of fast-track procedures.

The Singapore office of the Korea Tourism Organisation has already received many inquiries from travel agencies, hotels and other tourism-related partners, said its director Charles Lim. He added that his office is making efforts to ensure that an air travel bubble on leisure travel between both countries can be achieved as soon as possible.


Hong Kong has initiated talks with 11 jurisdictions, including Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, on a travel bubble as the local travel industry has called for residents to be allowed to travel abroad without the need for quarantine at destination countries and upon returning home.

Hong Kong planned to have a travel bubble with Guangdong province in China and neighbouring Macau, but the initiative stalled due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in July and August in the Asian financial hub.

The number of cases has since stabilised and, to boost visitors' confidence in the city, Hong Kong has launched a hygiene protocol for tourism-related industries.


Thailand has among the lowest number of confirmed cases in Asia, with just over 3,600 cases. The kingdom was due to welcome its first batch of foreign tourists this month but this has been delayed due to what tourism officials describe as administrative issues.

Thailand's Foreign Ministry said it has reached out to Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong to negotiate special travel arrangements. These countries and territories were selected for, among other reasons, their "robust" public health system, success in reducing local transmissions and strong economic cooperation with Thailand.


Japan is unlikely to resume leisure travel - including through a travel bubble - soon, even though observers believe this will give a much-needed fillip to its tourism industry.

While policies like "leisure travel bubbles" will naturally save the flagging tourism industry, Toyo University tourism management expert Kazuaki Sasaki said the industry will immediately become "social pariahs" if there is a spike of Covid-19 cases.

While a relaxation on the ban on leisure visitors is not on the horizon, the Yomiuri daily reported last Thursday that Japan will lower its travel warnings for 12 places, including Singapore, starting next month.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2020, with the headline How the region is responding to S'pore's idea of air travel bubbles. Subscribe