Building Safe Travel Bubbles

People will be eagerly following the expected launch of the world’s first travel bubble later this month, which will enable people who test negative for Covid-19 to travel between Hong Kong and Singapore on designated flights without having to go through quarantine.

If successful, the initiative could help pave the way for reopening travel and tourism — a vital economic driver for many countries, including Thailand — while we wait for the development of an effective vaccine and better treatment for the coronavirus.

Hong Kong is planning to extend similar travel bubble agreements to Thailand and nine other countries: Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland and Vietnam.

While some countries have eased travel restrictions, with a number of bilateral travel agreements in play between various countries, quarantine, which typically runs from seven to 14 days depending on local laws, is still seen as the most effective method for preventing a flood of imported coronavirus cases as borders open.

Many governments are currently facing the unenviable task of having to balance the risk of increased transmissions that will come from opening up international business travel and tourism with the economic damage that will result from keeping borders closed — an issue that has been acutely felt in Thailand where tourism typically accounts for about one-fifth of the economy.

Building safe travel bubbles
Building safe travel bubbles

It is generally accepted that the business travel and tourism sectors will not be able to recover with quarantines in place, especially those lasting a week or two. This is why enabling faster travel is important.

Technology is also helping on this front. Prenetics, a Hong Kong-based startup, recently acquired the rights to the Oxsed RaViD test, which is much faster than the RT-PCR coronavirus test being used at airports — 30 minutes compared with a minimum of four hours. Hong Kong International Airport is currently evaluating the Oxsed tests, which are already in use at London Heathrow airport.

Another area of focus is reducing the friction of travel and minimising risks from contact-based disease transmissions. Singapore’s use of facial and iris scans to replace fingerprints for biometric identification of people at immigration checkpoints is one innovation that could help make people more confident of travel in the post-Covid world.

More than 2 million Singaporeans, permanent residents and travellers who have registered their biometrics can make use of this service, which was developed by ICA.

Travel bubbles are not a panacea and it is highly likely that travellers may have to bear the costs of several expensive Covid-19 tests. This will be cheaper than quarantine but will still amount to several hundred dollars. Nor will safe travel rebuild the tourism sector on its own — people not only have to feel safe, they need to be inspired to travel again.

While we wait to see how well the proposed travel bubbles will work and for borders to fully reopen, many companies and national tourism associations are using virtual reality to market their destinations. In China, both Alibaba and Tencent have been working to provide digital tours of Unesco World Heritage sites, such as the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Mogoa Caves, respectively, to potential tourists.

Closer to home, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai has been using online streaming of its elephant conservation activities to keep people engaged with, and raise funds for, its work.

While it’s unlikely we will see a full tourism recovery without a Covid vaccine, initiatives such as the Hong Kong-Singapore bubble and other innovations that seek to make travel safer and simpler, as well as help reignite travellers’ interest in the region’s destinations, could give the industry a well-needed shot in the arm.

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