SINGAPORE: Countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Japan could potentially partner Singapore in setting up air travel bubbles in future, although any decision is likely contingent on how effectively COVID-19 is controlled in those countries rather than the push for tourism receipts, said travel experts.
Earlier this week, it was announced that the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble will start on Nov 22, with an initial one flight a day into each city with 200 passengers each way. This will increase to two flights a day from Dec 7.
Travellers, who must test negative for COVID-19, have to take the dedicated flights but will have no restrictions on their travel purpose. They do not have to follow a controlled itinerary and will not be subject to quarantine or stay-home notice.
This arrangement sets up a potential model for future air travel bubbles.
"We are proceeding cautiously, but if the arrangement is successful and the pandemic continues to stay under control on both sides, we can look forward to expanding the bubble to more flights, and hopefully, to more destinations as well," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post following the announcement.
"Travellers will have to get used to new regulations and COVID-19 swab tests – all part and parcel of the new normal."
Speaking to CNA, Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior lecturer in tourism Michael Chiam said countries that could eventually set up a travel bubble for leisure will likely be those that currently have green and fast lane arrangements with Singapore for essential business and official travel.
These include South Korea, Japan and China, he noted.
"We have received visitors from these countries and it allowed us to assess the intensity of infection there as well as their effectiveness in infection control to make an informed decision as to whether these countries should be included in the travel bubble for leisure travellers," he added.
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Mr Kevin Wee, a senior lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Business Management, said it is "difficult" to predict the next destination to have a bilateral travel bubble arrangement with Singapore.
Two key factors in the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble were the effective control of the virus and the ability to conduct successful negotiations, he noted.
"In that same vein, countries that have pre-existing arrangements with Singapore such as those with reciprocal green lane arrangements like Japan could have a higher chance to form a travel bubble with Singapore," he said.
READ: COVID-19: What is preventing countries lifting border restrictions to travellers from Singapore?
TOURISM RECEIPTS NOT AS 'CRITICAL'
Experts CNA spoke to said that tourism receipts would not be the main consideration when it comes to a decision on whether to form a travel bubble with a particular country.
According to the Singapore Tourism Board, the top three markets in 2019 based on tourism receipts were mainland China (S$4,124 million), Indonesia (S$3,704 million) and India (S$1,624 million), contributing 41 per cent of overall tourism receipts. Japan ranked fifth, South Korea ninth and Vietnam 10th.
This expenditure excludes spending on sightseeing, entertainment and gaming.
"Singapore, like countries around the world, is treading carefully around the global pandemic. The crucial factor for choosing another country to form a travel bubble with should be based on the selected country’s ability to manage and minimise the spread of COVID-19 when their residents travel into Singapore," said Mr Wee.
"Conversely, the country will also assess Singapore’s ability to contain COVID-19 within our country, before agreeing to the travel bubble arrangements for Singaporeans to enter their country. Hence, safety is the key consideration, and tourism receipts may not be as critical in this new norm."
Mr Christopher Khoo, the managing director for international tourism consultancy Masterconsult Services, told CNA that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all "deserve to be considered" for inclusion in travel bubbles with Singapore in the future.
He pointed out the main criteria behind such decisions would be "reciprocal trust" in the public health systems of the destination that one forms a travel bubble with.
"(For) Singapore and Hong Kong, both parties have shown great success in controlling (the pandemic), and have got mechanisms in cutting down (the amount of air traffic) if necessary - if there is a flare up (in cases). There is trust on both sides, because ... it is a public health issue - it's not so much I want to open up my economy," he explained.
Hong Kong has weathered the pandemic better than most, with more than 5,400 cases so far and about 100 related deaths. However, it reported 23 new infections on Thursday (Nov 12), the most since Sep 20.
"The choice of partner country would really be - do I trust their system? Is there enough business, or is there enough interaction already in place, previously generated, that will justify MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) or whoever opening up a dialogue and talking," said Mr Khoo.
ASEAN nations could be potential options for Singapore to form travel bubbles with, noted experts. Vietnam for one, could be an option, said Mr Khoo.
"Naturally given their good state of COVID preparedness or COVID suppression, Vietnam would be a likely choice very soon," he said. "The (visitor) numbers may not be as great as some other ASEAN destinations, but they give us confidence."
Vietnam has been lauded for its response to the pandemic, with the country of about 97 million recording 35 COVID-19 deaths so far.
Ar present, Singapore has unilaterally opened its borders to travellers from Vietnam, Brunei, New Zealand, Australia and mainland China.
Unlike the fast or green lane arrangements, this includes all forms of short-term travel, including for leisure. Visitors have to apply for an Air Travel Pass and must have remained in the departing country for 14 consecutive days prior to arrival in Singapore.
New Zealand and Australia could also be potential partners for a travel bubble down the line, said experts. However, these countries have been more "conservative" in opening borders to foreign tourists, said Dr Wong.
"Australia and New Zealand are also in my prediction, but it seems like they more conservative in reopening their borders," she added. "Although they would like tourists to bring them more GDP, higher GDP but then they have internal resources, so it’s okay (for them)," she said.
READ: COVID-19: Singapore to lift border restrictions for visitors from mainland China and Australia's Victoria state from Nov 6
Thailand is also a possibility, said Dr Wong. "Their number of cases are not that high, (and) are quite stable. Thailand is also in very urgent need to receive more tourists," she added.
According to recent reports, Thailand has been in talks with China to form a travel bubble.
It also has a Special Tourist Visa programme which allows tourists to enter the country under specific conditions. Under the plan, which was first approved by the Thai Cabinet in September, foreign tourists who commit to a stay of at least 30 days are issued 90-day visas that can be renewed twice.
After arriving, they have to stay in government-approved quarantine at a hotel or hospital for 14 days and show confirmation that they have made arrangements for long-term accommodation. They must also have special insurance policies and undergo pre-departure testing for the virus.
On the likelihood of an air travel bubble between Singapore and China, experts said it is a possibility, but given the country's large domestic tourism market, it may not need international travellers as urgently as other countries.
"I think there is the possibility but they don’t need us ... their domestic tourism has already recovered (to) pre-COVID (levels). So even if they don't have international tourists, they are doing fine. They can still talk to different countries, but it is not their first priority," said Dr Wong King Yin, who is a digital and tourism marketing lecturer at Nanyang Technological University.
Chinese domestic tourism saw a robust rebound over the Golden Week holiday last month. Tourism sites were visited by 637 million domestic tourists over the eight-day National Day holiday that started Oct 1, 79 per cent of last year's total, according to China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism in a statement.
“They have actually shown that domestic tourism can start to restart. And I see really no reason why they are not going to go full steam ahead,” added Mr Khoo.
“(The) COVID-19 (pandemic) is going to see the strengthening of China's internal domestic tourism ... Now, Singaporeans into China is such a minuscule number. So it really doesn’t play a part at all. But China's opening up for Singaporeans to go in is really part of their overall campaign to open up to reliable partners."
'THEY HAVE NOWHERE TO GO'
While there is definitely demand for travel, experts noted that many continue to have a "wait and see" attitude, given the widespread nature of the pandemic.
"There will always be a group ready to travel as they may be bored staying at home. That said, most will be cautious and will likely take a wait and see attitude to assess if it is safe to travel, based on the experience of other travellers," said Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Dr Chiam.
READ: No 'huge increase' in demand expected from Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble, say aviation analysts
Mr Wee noted that the appetite for travel in Singapore has always been strong and continues to be.
"Overseas trips have almost always been seen as an integral part of many Singaporeans’ holiday plans," he said. "However, many travellers are still cautious and will opt for private group tours, with a preference for less crowded resorts when leisure travel resumes."
While the desire to travel remains, the associated costs with flying abroad could also temper outbound demand, noted Dr Wong.
"In the past when Singaporeans travel to Asian countries, it’s much more affordable than (it is) now because the flight tickets are much more expensive (now) and also the cost for all the tests that you need ... for COVID-19 is very expensive," she said.
"Definitely, the demand for outbound travel ... is here. Many people really need to escape from their own place but then it is just that they don't know where to go. They have nowhere to go."