The land vaccinated travel lane (VTL) set to open between Singapore and Malaysia from Monday serves a different group of travellers from the VTL between Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which starts on the same day, said experts and travellers.
By precluding most short-term visitors travelling for work or leisure, the opening of the Causeway at Woodlands prioritises Malaysians and Singaporeans in the Johor region who have not seen their families in 20 months.
This is especially timely with the holiday season, as well as Chinese New Year, approaching. More than 100,000 Malaysians live and work in Singapore.
"The air VTL is not restricted to citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders," said Associate Professor Walter Theseira of the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
"It requires a polymerase chain reaction test, whereas the land VTL can be taken via an antigen rapid test... so the cost of the land VTL is much lower. One would hope that with smooth operation of the land VTL, more categories of travellers can be opened up."
Travellers using the land VTL must use designated VTL buses operated by two companies, Transtar Travel and Handal Indah.
But the biggest difference from other VTL arrangements announced so far is that travellers have to be citizens, permanent residents or long-term pass holders of the country they are entering.
This means that those coming into Singapore must be Singapore citizens, PRs or long-term pass holders, which includes work permit, employment pass, student pass or long-term visit pass holders.
The same rules apply for those going from Singapore to Malaysia.
Ms Pravina Rau, 29, a finance executive in Malaysia, said she was relieved that those with family on the other side of the border had been taken into consideration.
Her uncle, who works in Singapore, used to commute every day between the two countries, but has not been able to return home since March last year, when the borders were shut.
"He could not afford to take up the air VTL route when it opened," she said. "He can now come home to see the family. I am so happy."
Pre-pandemic, about 415,000 people crossed the Causeway and Tuas Second Link every day, most of them Malaysian workers who commuted daily. Prof Theseira said such daily commutes are unlikely to resume for some time.
However, he still expects overwhelming demand for the land VTL when bus tickets open for booking today. When applications for the vaccinated travel pass for Malaysian travellers to Singapore under the air VTL opened on the SafeTravel website this week, the surge in traffic activity stalled the site for hours.
Prof Theseira said a less restrictive scheme where people can drive across the Causeway is also unlikely for now. "Using buses, trains and planes allows greater control over the travel quota as the authorities can simply license a certain number of trips each day," he said.
"Allowing private vehicles or foot travel would either require the authorities to give up the quota entirely, or would require the authorities to directly operate the quota mechanism by, for example, requiring private vehicle drivers or motorcyclists to apply for quota slots directly."
Ms Aarathi Arumugam, president of the Malaysian Association in Singapore, said whether Malaysians will use the land or air VTL would depend on their budget and destinations, she said.
On the daily quota of 2,880 people, she said: "We don't know if this quota is sufficient. Hopefully, it is open to changes if the systems and processes in place prove to be sufficient."