Competing financial centers Hong Kong and Singapore are expected to be the first regions in the world to open a reciprocal "air travel bubble" after ministers of both governments announced a preliminary deal on Thursday. Under the deal, residents of both cities could travel to the other without quarantine – provided they test negative for COVID-19.
"This is a milestone in our efforts to restore normalcy as we fight the protracted battle of COVID-19," said Edward Yau, Hong Kong Minister for Trade and Economic Development. All details of the arrangement are still being worked out, but Yau has "every confidence" that the plan "can be realized very soon".
Earlier hopes for a “travel bubble” did not last long.
Tourists walk past the Rain Vortex in the Jewel Changi Airport Terminal in Singapore. ROSLAN RAHMAN – AFP / Getty Images
Governments have been circulating the idea of opening travel bubbles since at least May – when Australia and New Zealand were considering the idea. However, the concept has so far proven to be overly optimistic as sudden spikes in local case numbers put travel plans on hold.
At best, countries have introduced unrequited quarantine exemptions. For example, on Friday, Australia welcomed passengers from New Zealand without quarantine, but New Zealand is still requiring all tourists to go through two weeks of isolation.
The kiwi nation has largely kept COVID-19 under control, with the daily case numbers mostly in the single digits since May.
Subscribe to Eastworld for a weekly insight into the dominant business in Asia delivered to your inbox for free.
Hong Kong and Singapore hadn't been out of the woods that long.
Hong Kong experienced a "third wave" in August, in which the total number of infections almost quintupled. And Singapore is still practicing social distancing due to its huge surge in April that brought its total number of cases to over 57,000.
However, Singapore Minister of Transport Ong Ye Kung says that both Hong Kong and Singapore have "low incidences" of COVID-19 cases and have "robust mechanisms" in place to deal with outbreaks. "This has given us the confidence to open our borders mutually and gradually," said Ong.
Hong Kong Disneyland reopened in September, with masks mandatory for everyone except mascots. Li Zhihua – China News Service / Getty Images
On Thursday, Singapore reported three new coronavirus cases that saw single-digit growth over four days. On the same day, Hong Kong reported 12 COVID-19 cases – the highest increase in a single day in a week. While these numbers are low compared to many other places, Hong Kong's hypervigilance is a cause for concern, as high as 12 cases.
Just last week, Health Minister Sophia Chan came up with the idea of enforcing mandatory COVID-19 tests when some experts warned of a possible “fourth wave” of infections after a daily increase of 18 cases.
Last month, the city tested nearly 2 million people to counter its third wave, which experts blamed for Hong Kong's earlier quarantine exemptions. These exceptions waived the 14-day isolation period for certain groups, such as B. Sea and flight crew members.
"I think the risk that travelers from Singapore pose for Hong Kong would be minimal," said Hong Kong University epidemiologist Ben Cowling, quoting the city's low number of cases. "But it would still be important to arrange tests for travelers from Hong Kong or Singapore just before departure or tests on arrival."
The floating Apple Store in Singapore's Marina Bay is a new photo spot for tourists. Bryan van der Beek – Bloomberg / Getty Images
The travel bubble could provide financial relief for airlines and the tourism industry in both cities. Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific shares closed 6% on the news Thursday after posting their biggest gains in seven weeks.
The route between Hong Kong and Singapore is usually the 17th busiest in the world. Hong Kong tourists made up 3% of all visitors to Singapore last year. This year, of course, that flow almost came to a standstill. In Hong Kong, visits from Singapore decreased by over 93% in the first eight months of 2020.
Under the tentative agreement, travelers must receive a negative COVID-19 test from an institution recognized by both the Hong Kong and Singapore government. Airlines are also required to travel specific routes – without transit passengers – and group travel is not permitted.
The Hong Kong government said last month it hoped to open travel bubbles with ten other countries including New Zealand, Vietnam, South Korea, Germany and France.
With social distancing measures still being enforced in Hong Kong – limiting the number of restaurants to four, closing public beaches, and canceling public events – many of the usual tourist activities are banned on travelers' arrivals.
More needs to be read international reporting from capital::
- The WHO director calls herd immunity "scientifically and ethically problematic".
- The UK government's scientific advisors said weeks ago they should introduce a national lockdown. It ignored them.
- The electric car market is bustling with activity, with Europe and China taking the lead
- China is making some progress on its US trade deals
- Facebook A.I. Researchers are pushing for a breakthrough in renewable energy storage