SINGAPORE: The moment Mrs Xianna Lock got wind of the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble, she went straight to the Singapore Airlines website to book flights back to Singapore for Christmas and Chinese New Year.
The 36-year-old Singaporean and her husband have been based in Hong Kong for three years. The last time she visited Singapore was in March, just before Hong Kong closed its borders to curb the spread of COVID-19.
She is now excited at the prospect of coming home.
“How did we feel (after finding out about the travel bubble)? Yeah, finally!" Mrs Lock told CNA over the phone from Hong Kong.
“Because previously, in the last three years, we have been going back to Singapore quite often. So to suddenly stop the habit ... and I mean, you’re also concerned about your family members back in Singapore because it has also been a tough period for everyone.”
READ: COVID-19: Singapore, Hong Kong reach in-principle agreement to establish bilateral air travel bubble
Singapore and Hong Kong announced on Oct 15 that they have reached an in-principle agreement to establish a bilateral air travel bubble.
Full details of the agreement, including the date of implementation and how COVID-19 tests will be carried out, have yet to be announced.
But the air travel bubble will exempt travellers from quarantines or stay-home notices if they are negative for the coronavirus on mutually recognised polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
Unlike green lane or fast lane arrangements with other destinations, there will be no restrictions on travel purpose under the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble, paving the way for leisure travellers. They will also not need to have a controlled itinerary.
READ: Fast lane, green lane, air travel pass: What you need to know about Singapore's COVID-19 travel measures
While Singapore residents can return home under the current circumstances, those travelling from Hong Kong must serve a seven-day stay-home notice which can be done at their place of residence.
The stay-home notice period was previously 14 days at a dedicated facility, but it was reduced with effect from Oct 15 after Hong Kong was added to Singapore's list of low-risk countries and regions.
These restrictions made it difficult for Singaporeans to take time off work to travel home.
With the isolation period being 14 days in Hong Kong, it adds up to roughly the number of days of annual leave an employee has, noted Ms Su Weiying, who has been working in Hong Kong for nearly six years.
Despite the lack of details on the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble, Mrs Lock and her husband decided to go ahead and reserve their seats as Chinese New Year is the most popular period for Singaporeans in Hong Kong to head home.
Many expatriates who feel “cooped up” in Hong Kong also tend to fly out in December, she added.
Mrs Lock said being away from home for so long because of the pandemic makes her cherish moments she used to share with her family, like sitting down to dinner or playing with her niece.
“And just being able to be back in Singapore and eating your local food. I think for us, being away from Singapore for so many years, that is the one thing that we always miss when we’re away,” she added.
MONTHS OF SEPARATION AND DELAYED FLIGHTS
It is a sentiment shared by many Singaporeans living and working in Hong Kong.
Shortly after the travel bubble announcement, Ms Joanne Tan, who has not been back since March 2019, started looking at flights back to Singapore.
She had recently given birth, and her priority was to go back home to let her family meet her eight-month-old baby girl.
“I had planned that during my maternity leave, I would take the time to bring my baby, show everybody, spend time with everyone there,” said the 34-year-old. “But then that obviously didn’t happen.”
“So it was just my parents who managed to come over for three days before Chinese New Year to see her when she was born. It’s been a bit sad that I haven’t been able to go back and most of all that I haven’t been able to bring my baby back to meet her family.”
Without the need to quarantine herself with her daughter, it would make the trip more manageable, added Ms Tan.
It has been a period of uncertainty for overseas Singaporeans, who have had to reschedule and cancel flights as the COVID-19 situation evolved around the world.
Mrs Lock, who used to travel back to Singapore monthly, had to cancel several flights between April and July.
While she and her husband initially tried to be optimistic about holding on to their June or July tickets, they soon decided, after their April and May tickets got rescheduled, that they should simply cancel the rest of their flights.
“(After the April and May tickets got rescheduled) we were like, you know what, let’s just cancel all because there’s no point in rescheduling for another date when you’re not sure whether you can still fly. So we just cancelled and got a refund instead,” she said.
Ms Su postponed her flight to Singapore several times.
She had initially planned to return in March, but as COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong and Singapore went up, she postponed it to May.
Then because of Singapore's "circuit breaker", she pushed it back to July, then again to October.
“That was when the (airline) was actually suggesting, why don’t you cancel it and book another flight, because the postponement can only be for one year. At the rate that I’m postponing, might as well just cancel and book again," said Ms Su.
In the end, Ms Su decided to cancel the ticket and return to Singapore on another flight. She came home in September, served her 14-day stay-home notice and is currently working remotely from Singapore.
Nevertheless, the 36-year-old said she was “thrilled” when she found out about the travel bubble.
The easing of travel restrictions “opens up a lot of doors for discussion and creative arrangements” with companies about working, she said, adding that some employees could work out arrangements to work from wherever they want.
“I'm very thrilled for my friends who are planning to come home so that they can spend more time with family rather than in a hotel,” she added.
As nothing is set in stone, Mrs Lock is prepared for any eventuality.
“We know it’s very fluid,” she said. “So the only thing we can do is just kind of position ourselves to assume first that if there's a travel bubble, let's at least get the flights booked.”
“In the event that it blows up in Singapore or Hong Kong and they put a hold on this travel bubble, I think we've come to accept that this is going to be the new norm, so we're not putting our hopes too high and not trying to plan every single thing, not telling all our friends that, hey guys, we're going to be back for these dates.
“I think you only feel like you're going home once you're at the airport and probably boarding the plane, then it might hit you that, okay, great, I am going back to Singapore now. But until then, I don't think we are trying to be too excited about it,” she said.
Like Mrs Lock, Ms Tan said she is looking forward to local food when she visits Singapore.
"I have a list," she said with a laugh. "I've been compiling a list of food that I have to eat. For the past year, I’ve been compiling a list."