Coronavirus: Progress on Asian travel bubbles

On Oct 21, Thailand welcomed 39 Chinese tourists, almost seven months after it shut its borders. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO / AIRPORTS OF THAILAND

Asian countries are looking to progressively open up their borders by establishing travel bubbles or air "bridges" with other nations, even as cases of Covid-19 surge in some parts of the world.



On Oct 21, the kingdom welcomed 39 Chinese tourists, almost seven months after it shut its borders. The visitors were admitted into the country under a Special Tourist Visa programme, which is a test to confirm whether a wider opening of Thailand's ailing tourism sector is possible.

Under the scheme, foreign tourists must stay in Thailand for at least 30 days, and they are issued 90-day visas that can be renewed twice.

Upon arrival, they must stay in a government-approved hotel or hospital for 14 days and prove they have long-term accommodation. They must have insurance policies, undergo pre-departure Covid-19 tests and download a Covid-19 tracking app on their smartphones.

Thailand is currently in talks with China to establish a quarantine-free travel corridor by January.

Hong Kong


Starting next month, Hong Kong and Singapore's two-way air travel corridor for leisure and other types of travel without the need for quarantine will open. Travellers will have to test negative for Covid-19 and board dedicated flights that do not accept transit passengers.

Hong Kong said it has initiated talks with 11 jurisdictions - including Japan, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand - on the creation of a quarantine-free travel bubble.

The territory had planned to start a travel bubble with Guangdong province in mainland China and neighbouring territory Macau, but this stalled due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in the Asian financial hub in July and August.



Having shut its borders since April, Indonesia is considering reopening to regular travellers despite dealing with the region's largest coronavirus outbreak.

However, the government has not set a timeframe for when a decision will be made, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Oct 22.

So far, Indonesia has travel corridor arrangements with Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and China, but only for essential business travel, investors and state officials.



Malaysia's borders are still shut to leisure travellers as the country battles another wave of Covid-19 infections, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin saying the country will not be rushing to reopen its borders soon.

It has two travel schemes with Singapore - the Reciprocal Green Lane and the Periodic Commuting Arrangement - for travellers from both countries. Tourism Malaysia hopes that cross-border tourism for leisure will reopen in stages in the first quarter of next year.



India has air bubble arrangements with 18 countries. Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said the country is negotiating to do the same with more than 10 other nations.

Under these arrangements, travellers can apply for visas to enter India for official or business purposes, as well as for employment, studies, research and medical purposes.



Japan has business travel arrangements with Vietnam, Singapore, China and South Korea. Business travellers do not need to undergo a 14-day quarantine. However, they must take pre-departure and post-arrival Covid-19 tests, have travel insurance, present an itinerary of their stay and download a Covid-19 contact tracing app.

Japan said it has started consultations with Thailand, Australia, Brunei, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau to set up travel bubbles.

It will also lower its travel warnings for 12 places - including Singapore - from next month. Japan reopened its borders this month to all foreigners with permits to stay in the country, but they have to self-isolate for 14 days.

Tourists are not included in this arrangement.



China was one of the first countries to establish a "fast-track" arrangement for essential business and official travel with South Korea, Germany, Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia and other countries.

It has also set up "green channels" at its border ports with Mongolia, for cross-border land freight transportation between the two countries.

Additionally, foreign nationals holding valid Chinese residence permits for work, personal matters and reunions have been allowed into China since Sept 28.

They need a negative result from their nucleic acid test but still have to undergo a 14-day quarantine at a hotel assigned by the government.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Progress on Asian travel bubbles. Subscribe