Exploring Germany: Pandemic trips are safe, zestful with new Vaccinated Travel Lane

A Christmas market in Erfurt, Germany. PHOTO: GERMANY TRAVEL

She has danced, safely, in a nightclub housed on a river boat and watched a live music performance, since arriving in Berlin last Friday.

Communications manager Janice Chew says clubs in Berlin check guests for their vaccination status, a recent Covid-19 test result or proof of recovery. "I just danced at the back of the room so there's more space," she says, intent on exploring Germany safely and ardently.

The emotions are surreal as she globetrots again. "It feels like I'm slipping into a familiar skin of a previous traveller life," says the 31-year-old. "It's great to be in Germany - feels like I'm truly living."

She also found herself "relearning" how to travel. En route, she paid attention to the in-flight safety video and tried to remember when she could fill her water bottle at the airport.

In Berlin, she will also savour art, history and cool enclaves. She will likely spend time in another lifestyle capital, Munich, and mediaeval Rothenburg before flying home on Oct 21.

The first Singapore residents to visit Germany under the new Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme - which started on Sept 8 - have just returned home or are still holidaying there.

At a time when VTLs are rolling out at a quickened pace, their experiences in Germany show that it is possible to travel safely during the global pandemic.

Last Saturday, a flurry of new VTLs was announced by the Transport Ministry. From next Tuesday, vaccinated travellers can go on quarantine-free trips to eight more countries: Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain and the United States.

South Korea, popular with Singaporean travellers, was added to the scheme last Friday. The VTL flights start on Nov 15.

Previously, Brunei was a VTL pioneer, alongside Germany, but its borders remain closed to leisure travel.

In sync with these multiple openings, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is expanding its VTL network and stepping up its German services.

SQ325, the designated VTL flight from Frankfurt to Singapore, will increase to daily departures from next Tuesday. From Munich, there will be three VTL flights to Singapore every week on SQ331 from next Wednesday.

And Scoot will resume non-stop flights thrice a week between Singapore and Berlin.

In the coming weeks, travel-famished Singaporeans will have a fuller choice of quarantine-free destinations, though Germany has a first-mover advantage. An SIA spokesman says "demand remains strong" for Frankfurt and Munich VTL flights, which carry a mix of Singapore and Germany residents.

"Anecdotally, there is also a good combination of customers travelling to visit families, those going for leisure and holidays, as well as business travel," the spokesman says.

This early VTL is filled with significance for nations and travel lovers. "This travel lane is an important step in the safe and calibrated reopening of Singapore to international travel, backed by rising global vaccination rates and confidence in robust health and safety measures," the spokesman adds.

Certainly, the pilot VTL acts as a template. As Mr Chew Kian Beng, course chair of hospitality and tourism management at Temasek Polytechnic, sees it: "Because of the success stories of this VTL, we can quickly replicate this model."

In the same vein, Dr Norbert Riedel, Germany's Ambassador to Singapore, says this introductory VTL will provide "best practices" for restarting travel in a calibrated style. "It is our common hope that a successful implementation of this pilot paves the way for expansion to other countries in Europe and South-east Asia," he says.

Germany's vaccination rate is high at 84 per cent. Singapore's rate is almost identical, with 83 per cent of the population fully vaccinated as of last Saturday.

Dr Riedel discerns another parallel. "Germany's strategy towards containing the coronavirus and learning to live with it is aligned with Singapore's own policies - thus travellers will find a very similar and safe environment."

Germans welcome Singaporeans, he adds, saying: "My countrymen have a very positive image of Singapore and thus I am sure, there will be many happy encounters when travelling in Germany."

According to the European Travel Commission last year, the top five countries in Europe most likely to be visited by Singaporeans in the next five years are the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany.

Mr Chew from Temasek Polytechnic says: "For Singaporeans who have been itching to travel, the light at the end of the tunnel has finally arrived and we can once again look forward to overseas vacations."

As interest surges, travel agencies will be the "travel buddy" for tourists, managing travel disruptions and arranging polymerase chain reaction tests, he says.

This is a point highlighted by retiree Peter Tay, 65, who started his 11-day Classic Germany Romantic Road tour yesterday. Organised by Chan Brothers Travel, this is the company's first Germany tour on the new travel lane, and a full complement of 20 clients signed up.

Mr Tay, who is travelling with his wife, says: "We were drawn by the flexible cancellation and refund policies, smaller group size of no more than 20 travellers and inclusion of Covid-19 protection benefits."

He adds: "We have full confidence that the agency can operate calmly and competently during exigencies, as witnessed in our past tours with it." These were an Italy tour in March 2018 and a Rhine cruise in November that year.

The travel agency has new safety protocols and devised contingency plans in case of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases among clients.

Mr Jeremiah Wong, senior marketing communications manager at Chan Brothers, says lists of medical facilities have been prepared, and also emergency contacts of the local health authorities.

"Our tour manager is well equipped to act swiftly on the spot in scenarios of a suspected case, which includes making sure the rest of the travellers in the group are tested negative using the antigen rapid test self-test kits before continuing on the tour."

Itineraries have been modified. "In pre-pandemic times, some of our itineraries to Europe may cover two to three countries, including Germany. Now under the VTL, we have the opportunity to showcase in-depth what Germany has to offer."

For the 11-day tour, clients can linger longer at three fairy-tale castles rather than treating them as photo stops. The itinerary also includes the Black Forest and local epicurean delights, such as smoked-beer tasting in Bamberg.

Neuschwanstein Castle outside Munich. PHOTO: CHAN BROTHERS TRAVEL

Travellers are also booking or inquiring at agencies like Dynasty Travel, which has itineraries such as German Christmas Markets and Travel Wander, which specialises in leisure active travel.

Ms Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Dynasty Travel, says that with the pandemic, itineraries are designed to be more relaxed, with in-depth exploration of Germany.

Group sizes are intimate, with a maximum of 20, compared with 40 before the pandemic, so there is greater privacy and comfort.

Ms Sheryl Lim, founder of Travel Wander, has been getting inquiries about cycling trips and treks in Germany, and also private tours.

One client, Mr Desmond Chan, says Ms Lim kept in touch with him on WhatsApp during his recent multi-day Bavaria trek. She was able to book his trek and hotels even though his was a last-minute request during the European summer peak. The 55-year-old semi-retiree in the logistics sector loved the adventure and is considering a second trip to Germany this year.

And so Singaporeans have jumpstarted their travels, with German sojourns the first of more quarantine-free journeys.

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