SINGAPORE - Could the Taiwan-Palau travel bubble provide a model for Singapore to emulate, paving the way for leisure travel to take place between one sunny island and another?
The answer is not quite so straightforward. According to the experts, travel bubbles with other islands are not likely to be inherently safer than similar arrangements with any other country. Instead, much depends on whether governments are in control of the Covid-19 situation within their borders.
Last Wednesday (March 17), Taiwan said it will open its first travel bubble with the Pacific island nation of Palau next month, with tour groups to follow a government-approved schedule and visit only certain tourist sites. They will also have to observe social distancing rules, and cannot venture off on their own.
Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said a day later that Singapore could be the next country the island could establish a travel bubble with, and that the two sides are in discussion on such an arrangement.
While it may be easier for local authorities to regulate entry and exit to an island, as opposed to policing long stretches of land borders, success still boils down to a country's ability to keep a close eye on its territory, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
"If surveillance was lax to begin with, it will still be possible for travellers to enter and exit an island without proper documentation," he noted.
Infectious diseases expert Paul Tambyah, who is president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, added that the majority of serious transnational outbreaks in recent years have been spread by air travel rather than over land.
Given this, it is unlikely that setting up a travel bubble with an island nation instead of a larger country would make a significant difference in terms of risks, he said.
"Right now, the key has to be effective vaccination," Professor Tambyah added. "That has been shown, time and again over the years, to be effective in containing and controlling infectious diseases from smallpox to polio to yellow fever and many more."
Vaccination will also be key to helping Singapore regain its attractiveness as a tourist destination, said Assistant Professor Michael Alexander Kruesi, who teaches in the Singapore Institute of Technology's hospitality business programme.
Unlike visitors to Taiwan and Palau, who will be able to engage in nature-based activities while avoiding crowds in major urban centres, Singapore's main draws are its highly populated urban locations, he noted.
Without a high percentage of the local population vaccinated, strict safe distancing measures cannot be loosened and tourists may be put off from visiting, Prof Kruesi said. He added that opening the country's doors to visitors would likely involve some sort of disruption - for instance, zoning off certain portions of attractions or imposing staggered timings.
"I do not think there are many, if any, of the big draw attractions - such as those in Marina Bay or on Sentosa - that tourists could possibly visit without major disruption to the operation of the attraction."
As for the challenge of keeping tourists in line, Prof Teo pointed out how some restaurants in Singapore already faced difficulties trying to enforce the rules that prevent intermingling among local guests from different tables.
"Extrapolate this to a situation where it involves resort and hotel accommodations, restaurants and gift shops, but now include the additional variable that the patrons are citizens of another country who are here to support your local tourism," Prof Teo said. "You will realise, quickly, the ability and will to police these visitors will be much reduced."
And will Singaporeans be keen on such tours, even if they have to abide by strict rules? Dynasty Travel's director of public relations and communications Alicia Seah thinks the answer is yes.
"I believe that customers will go on such trips with restricted itineraries, as long as the travel agent is able to customise them according to their needs," she said.