As travel bubbles begin, don't expect a miracle

The new Hong Kong-Singapore connection will be costly, risky and possibly unworkable, but it's still worth a shot.

By Bloomberg News, November 19 2020
As travel bubbles begin, don't expect a miracle

This Sunday, the post-Covid travel era will begin at airports in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Two hundred passengers, prescreened for the virus, will board flights in each city bound for the other.

Upon arrival, they’ll be tested again. If they’re negative, they can then roam free – without having to undergo the two-week quarantines required of other travelers.

It’s the world’s first-known Covid travel bubble, and the devastated global tourism industry has pinned its hopes on a successful rollout.

Unfortunately, even if the experiment works, it won’t herald the return of anything like the freewheeling air culture of pre-pandemic life.

Instead, it’ll probably signal a newly expensive and rarefied era of travel — one that’s very unlikely to support an industry that depends on cheap flights.

Behind the bubble

It’s no accident that this experiment is happening in the Asia-Pacific region.

For two decades, air travel has expanded more rapidly there than anywhere else. In 2010, 15.9 million people visited Thailand; in 2019, 39.8 million visited, more than two-thirds of them from Asia.

Few of those travelers arrived in a first-class cabin. Instead, their Thai beach holidays were mostly enabled by the explosive growth of low-cost airlines.

That had an immense effect on tourist flows: From 2011 to 2018, weekly flights between China and Thailand rose from 200 to 1,300, while the proportion of those taken on a budget airline soared from 4% to 44%.

All those bargains came to a halt this year thanks to Covid.

In Thailand, foreign visitors for 2020 are expected to decline by a whopping 83%, with most of the arrivals coming before the lockdown.

Other countries are facing similar blows to their travel and tourism industries. Budget airlines, dependent on volume to make up for thin margins, are among the worst-affected companies.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, “travel bubbles” were proposed as one solution to this devastation.

Small steps

But setting them up turned out to be far more difficult than expected. In Asia, where countries have been far more successful in controlling the pandemic, there’s an understandable reluctance to open up.

Yet even in places where interest is strong, the practical difficulties of agreeing to seemingly simple matters – such as testing standards – have held things up.

Despite such impediments, Hong Kong and Singapore have managed to come to what looks like a workable agreement.

The deep economic connections between the two cities – 13,654 flights went between them in 2019 – certainly helped.

Demand appears to be strong as well. During the inaugural week, in which there will be only one daily “bubble flight,” seats are already sold out.

It won’t be cheap, however. Even economy class seats are going for more than US$800, far more than an equivalent ticket pre-pandemic.

And that won’t be the only premium attached to a bubble flight.

Covid screening alone could cost as much as US$600 round trip, and travelers who test positive are expected to foot the bill for their treatment and quarantine in their destination city.

For all that, a travel bubble is no guarantee against infection.

Ongoing risks

Last week, a Caribbean cruise ship set sail for the first time since the industry was shut down in March.

Despite extensive precautions, including multiple tests for everyone on board, seven passengers and two crew members tested positive just days after the ship left port. The trip was quickly aborted and the company has canceled the rest of its cruises for 2020.

The Singapore-Hong Kong bubble might survive such an outbreak, but there’s not much room for error.

According to the agreement reached between the two cities, if either destination – both home to millions – records a seven-day average of five or more unlinked Covid cases, the bubble will be suspended.

Despite the risks, there are clearly plenty of people willing to take their chances to get back in the air.

But the extra costs, financial and otherwise, suggest that bubbles simply aren’t the answer to the travel industry’s woes – in Asia or anywhere else.

As with so many aspects of life impacted by Covid, only a vaccine is going to get things back to normal.

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1137

It is a bit unclear if it is a fast antigen test, is so then for asymptomatic people the accuracy is not great (as low as 50%); now a second test is fine but two hours later after a flight won’t show much difference. Even if it is a more accurate PCR test then a few days apart at least to pick things up, as we are finding in Australia. So who pays the  bill if later you’re found to be positive a few days later and you infect ten or more people, who then pass it on.

07 May 2020

Total posts 72

All very dandy to hear about travel bubbles but it will not happen with Australia for at least a year or more or longer. Even if the miracle vaccine comes along, returning travellers to Australia will still be forced into mandatory quarantine. The reason is that the various Australian governments will never let a returning virus slip into Australia. So mandatory quarantine will remain indefinitely. With or without the saviour because there will never be a 100% guarantee that the saviour will prevent the entry of the virus. 

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1137

GoRobin if most of the country is vaccinated against the virus and the vaccine is fairly effective then it won’t matter is someone brings the bug in. This is provided the vaccine is good enough to both keep people out of hospital and prevent what they call the long COVID the chronic fatigue symptoms. If the vaccine turns COVID into another common cold (which is being suggested)  I think people (health officials) will be happy with that.

08 May 2020

Total posts 15

I can’t see the travel bubble being a solution either, plane travel is going to be expensive for years to come.  Even after vaccines, you still need a cocktail of measures to bring the value of r below 1 - basically testing and testing people on planes - it’s going to be with us a long time.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1137

Mt once there is a vaccine that effectively turns it into a common cold it doesn’t matter what the r level is. Keeping people out of hospitals and morgues is what it is about. There have been some fairly infectious cold strains around that didn’t bother Leto much.

The vaccines are practically on our doorstep, as soon as it starts rolling out, situations will change for the better with an escape velocity. To all those pessimistic flyers out there, please have faith.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Nov 2014

Total posts 367

I hope the governments will be sensible and not aiming for absolute zero cases. The vaccine is only 90-95% effective, meaning that 5-10% of people will still get it. But the goal should be keep the number low enough so that hospital can cope. No doubt there will still be a few sporadic cases of people die from Covid-19 even with vaccine, but as long as the numbers are not more than death from usual flu, I don't see why resumption of travel cannot be allowed. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Aug 2017

Total posts 109

This makes too much sense Michael! Let’s hope so! This 0 case or nothing response is killing any hope of anything right now. 

07 Mar 2017

Total posts 46

Misleading to compare it against the cruise. That was a debacle in the making, with the bulk of passengers coming from the most infected source in the world, the US. And no testing beyond a test 3 days before boarding, and then at boarding - and no quarantine at all. 

This means it was a straightforward matter to get an infection in up to 5 days before the cruise, bring it on and spread it.

Compare this to here, where the agreement is between countries with a low infection rate as well as policies to prevent the spread - vastly different from the US.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1137

The BigM the testing regime is much the same just with fewer possible sources of infection but the risk is still there, having tests not far enough apart and opportunities to get infected between tests.

07 Mar 2017

Total posts 46

Yes, my comment referred to the source, not the testing regime. 

Basically, testing in this way is not 100% guaranteed, hence why quarantine normally accompanies it. However, this agreement is in place avoids quarantine as the source countries have a very low infection rate as well as policies to prevent the spread. This is vastly different from the US where the high infection rate and low control means there is high transmission possibility. Hence why the cruise outcome was a high risk activity, unlike this agreement.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1137

I suppose who the source countries are: Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand as well as parts of China yes, Japan, and Korea on current numbers certainly not.

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 285

SIN-HKG bubble postponed*, HK had a spike in community cases

* must resist puns involving bubbles


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