No lack of interest in S'pore for leisure travel under VTL despite higher costs, risk of longer stay if infected

People queuing at the Singapore Airlines Centre at Ion Orchard on Oct 12, 2021. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Amid the excitement over new destinations under the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme, there are precautions to take and potential pitfalls to avoid in leisure travel during a pandemic, said Mr Steven Ler, president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore.

Travel agents said that trips in the new normal will entail higher costs due to insurance, Covid-19 tests and the whittling down of group sizes.

And under Singapore's rules, those who test positive overseas will not be able to board a plane for home until 14 days after they were first diagnosed and they have fully recovered from Covid-19.

But there has been no lack of interest as Singapore, in its biggest move to restart leisure travel since the pandemic, announced nine new VTL countries last week, in addition to Germany and Brunei.

Fully vaccinated travellers can travel quarantine-free to the United States, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Canada from Oct 19, and to South Korea from Nov 15.

The pent-up demand saw customers flocking to the Singapore Airlines (SIA) service centre in Orchard Road on the same day.

Travel agents, too, reported an uptick in inquiries.

The Government followed up on Monday (Oct 11) with an announcement that unvaccinated children under 12 will also be allowed to travel quarantine-free from Oct 19.

Chan Brothers Travel has seen a fivefold surge in inquiries since the new VTL countries were announced, said its senior marketing communications manager Jeremiah Wong.

But the new normal of leisure travel will come with its share of inconveniences. Though new rules have reduced the required number of Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests from four to two, travellers will still have to make time before their return flight to take a test, either at the airport or at a service provider in the city.

Those who test positive may be looking at an isolation order, along with a trip extension of at least two weeks. The Ministry of Health states on its website that as at Oct 6, travellers should not return to Singapore until 14 days after the first diagnosis, and after they have fully recovered from Covid-19.

Travel insurance with Covid-19 coverage offers some buffer against this, with some plans including a daily quarantine allowance that can go towards accommodation and meals. This usually ranges from $50 to $100 per day.

Travel agents said they can play a role in helping travellers navigate the steps required.

Mr Ler, who is also the executive director of travel agency UOB Travel Planners, said: "You can possibly Google the information online, but it will take much longer.

"Travel agents have already been repeating this multiple times to customers. They have the expertise to assist with the essential planning, so you can focus on the joy of travelling again."

UOB Travel Planners, for instance, has a "travel safe bundle", which includes travel insurance with Covid-19 coverage, Covid-19 PCR tests and optional add-ons such as airport transfers.

These bundles cost between $500 and $900 and have been popular among corporate customers since they were launched nine months ago, said Mr Ler, who anticipates similar demand from leisure travellers.

Despite the added costs - travel agents here estimate that packages will cost between 5 per cent and 30 per cent more due to insurance, Covid-19 tests and reduced group sizes - some travellers are undeterred.

For Mr Joni Herison, a father of three, the relaxed border measures are a chance to meet his wife's brother and her family, who live in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. They hope to make the trip next June.

Mr Joni Herison (fourth from right) with his immediate family and some of his relatives who live in Atlanta, Georgia, during a holiday in Phuket in 2018. PHOTO: JONI HERISON

Prior to the pandemic, the two families would vacation together every two to three years. Their last trip was to Phuket in 2018.

Mr Herison, 44, is the owner and founder of travel agency Druk Asia, which specialises in tours to Bhutan. His wife, a housewife, is also 44, and their son and two daughters are aged nine, six and three.

The family is prepared to pay about 10 per cent to 20 per cent more for the trip, compared with pre-pandemic prices.

Meanwhile, business development manager Daniel Fang, 31, intends to go to New York City, Miami and Hawaii in November.

Mr Daniel Fang rented a car in Germany to avoid taking public transport, so as to minimise the risk of catching Covid-19. PHOTO: DANIEL FANG

The bachelor and avid traveller, who has visited 102 countries, also went to Germany for 10 days in September under the VTL scheme.

To mitigate the Covid-19 risk, he rented a car in Germany to avoid travelling by public transport. He also set aside a contingency fund to cover Covid-19-related expenses such as accommodation, should he need to self-isolate.

On the possibility of catching Covid-19 and being stranded overseas, Mr Fang said: "These are things I took into consideration before the trip. But after not having travelled for two years, I think this is a good opportunity and a risk I am willing to take."

Mr Daniel Fang set aside a contingency fund to cover Covid-19-related expenses such as accommodation. PHOTO: DANIEL FANG
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