Asia is slowly reopening for tourism. After months of strict border restrictions and closures since the Covid-19 pandemic began, some countries in the region are beginning to proceed with a cautious approach to inbound travel.
On Oct 15, Hong Kong and Singapore announced an “air travel bubble” that will exempt travellers between the two markets from current quarantine requirements. It marks the first significant positive development for the two aviation hubs.
The announcement came at a time when passenger traffic at Changi Airport in Singapore and Hong Kong International Airport is about 1.5% of normal levels. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have been their passenger loads fall almost almost 99% since the pandemic started.
Cathay Pacific last week announced it would slash more about 8,500 jobs, about 24% of its total headcount and including more than 5,000 in its home base. It will be one of the largest hits in the aviation sector globally since the outbreak started.
Singapore has been active in kickstarting its travel recovery by setting up reciprocal bubbles for business travellers with China, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Brunei and Indonesia. The city-state also accepts general travellers from four low-risk countries: Brunei, New Zealand, Vietnam and Australia. Hong Kong, meanwhile, is in talks with 11 nations including Japan, the European Union and Australia.
Under the Singapore-Hong Kong agreement, eligible travellers would not have to serve a quarantine or stick to a predetermined itinerary, but would need to take pre-departure virus tests and present a mutually recognised negative result before they can fly.
With 150,000 to 210,000 passengers per month, the Hong Kong-Singapore air travel bubble would more than double traffic, compared to the current 100,000 passengers monthly for each airport, given the pent-up demand for business and leisure trips.
Earlier we saw countries including China and Japan establishing business “air bridges”, but these come with strict testing and quarantine rules that deter all but the most determined travellers. The trans-Tasman bubble, talked about for months, only began on Oct 16 and is only one way for now, allowing a small number of New Zealanders to visit Australia.
Thailand last Wednesday welcomed its first foreign tourists in almost seven months: a group of 39 Chinese visitors, as part of an experiment aimed at testing if a wider opening is possible as the coronavirus cripples the tourism-reliant economy.
The Special Tourist Visa (STV) allows tourists from “low-risk” countries to enter Thailand for long stays of up to 270 days. A second group of 147 Chinese visitors is due to arrive this week, followed by a flight from Scandinavia in November.
I was relieved to hear reassurances from Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Yuthasak Supasorn about the stringent requirements, including a 14-day mandatory quarantine in Bangkok with paid bookings for the quarantine hotel as well as all of the visitors’ intended stay. Upon arriving, visitors also must download a tracking app on their smartphones.
The challenges of reopening to foreign tourists illustrate the ongoing tension between Covid-fighting success and economic recovery faced by Asian nations that have successfully kept the virus spread at bay. In the case of Thailand, the pandemic has brought the economy to its knees, with 8 million people or 26% of the workforce expected to lose their jobs by the end of the year. Many of those losses will be in the tourism sector, which welcomed 40 million visitors in 2019 — a figure we might never see again.
The Chinese holidaymakers arrived as political tension in Thailand is escalating, with daily anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok by closely packed crowds of largely unmasked protesters.
While authorities should do their best to ensure that foreign tourists meet health requirements, measures to ensure safe domestic travel should be stepped up as well. The risks are clear from Malaysia, where a new outbreak is being blamed partly on politicians crisscrossing the country to attend campaign events during a recent state-level election. Other countries pushing internal travel have seen upticks too, including Japan.
Compared to international arrivals, which usually require testing or quarantine, domestic tourism poses some higher health risks, despite governments’ best intentions to encouraged such activities to generate revenue.
But with a vaccine unlikely to be widely available until at least the middle of next year, the costs of international travel restrictions grow with each passing month. Asia’s political leaders can rightly be proud of their pandemic-fighting successes. But success should not be preserved at any cost.