SINGAPORE - Come Tuesday (Nov 16), tour leader Kenneth Lee, 58, will finally lead his first tour to South Korea after two long years of odd jobs amid the pandemic.
He worked as a safe distancing ambassador, a healthcare caregiver, attended security management training and other courses, and even got a diploma in tourism and event management. But finally, he can return to the profession that he had enjoyed for almost 21 years before 2020.
"I missed the food, the culture, the four seasons and the interactions with customers and travellers, some of whom have become personal friends," said the Chan Brothers Travel tour leader.
"I'll make sure to keep up to date with travel information and social distancing requirements of the destination so that I can provide advice to my tour group at each stage of the holiday."
Singapore's vaccinated travel lane (VTL) with South Korea, announced last month, kicks off on Monday, allowing vaccinated leisure travellers to enter the popular Asia destination without quarantine.
It is the first pact of its kind between two major aviation hubs in Asia. Winter in South Korea is also particularly appealing to many Singaporeans, some of whom embrace Korean culture.
Tuesday's Chan Brothers tour will be Singapore's first large tour group to depart for South Korea under the VTL arrangement.
Its 20 spots - down from the pre-Covid-19 capacity of 40 travellers - have all been snapped up, and the agency expects to send 10 more such groups to South Korea before the year is over.
A spokesman told The Straits Times that the travellers are all aged between 30 and 50, with the exception of one 13-year-old.
They will have to take their temperature twice daily and will have assigned seating in restaurants. Mr Lee said they will also avoid crowds as much as possible.
Three airlines - Singapore Airlines (SIA), Korean Air and Asiana Airways - plied the route between Singapore and South Korea before the pandemic, but the opening of the VTL has also attracted SIA's budget arm Scoot.
Senior director Joanne Taylor of travel consultancy FCM Consulting Asia said Scoot's decision "speaks volumes of the confidence in recovery for this market".
"The interest is buoyed by the appeal of the hallyu, or Korean wave, backed by the burgeoning K-pop and film industry, from BTS and Blackpink to Parasite and Squid Game," she said, reeling off the names of successful pop acts and popular dramas.
"Above all, I believe Korean food and beauty trends - many Singaporeans' first and second love - also account for the positive trajectory over the year-end holiday season."
But current levels of recovery continue to be tempered by restrictions. Singapore has yet to make a decision on whether to extend Covid-19 vaccines to children aged five to 11, which means they are unable to go with their parents to South Korea without quarantine.
People travelling to South Korea will also have to take more polymerase chain reaction tests - at least four - according to regulations. This is compared to just two tests for Denmark, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and France, and three for Britain and the United States. Those travelling to Europe also get to enjoy access to multiple destinations within the Schengen area.
Ms Taylor said FCM's data showed that VTLs with European destinations such as Germany, France and Switzerland have gained more traction among Singaporeans than that with South Korea, which had been the second-most popular destination after Britain before the pandemic.
"We do expect bookings to South Korea to ramp up over the next three months. Many keen travellers are still adopting a wait-and-see attitude and planning for their travel to begin in the new year," she added.
Dynasty Travel, for now, said it is organising only customised private groups of family and friends. Group sizes are between four and eight people - usually families with teenage children. They will be attached to a local tour guide.
It cited children's ineligibility for quarantine-free travel as a major reason for this cautiousness, even though it had received almost 100 inquiries about South Korea since the VTL was announced.
A member of the South Korea-bound Chan Brothers group, who gave her name only as Mrs Koh, said the destination was a natural choice after imbibing Korean dramas avidly in the past two years.
Mrs Koh, who is in her 50s and an entrepreneur, had to pay a higher cost for both Covid-19 tests and flights, but said this was expected.
"I want to visit some of the Korean drama filming locations, shop for Korean skincare products, and do some Christmas shopping.
"My husband and I chose a guided package tour to have more assurance with a point contact so as to be worry free about having to arrange hotels and transport, especially during this period," she said.