Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble postponed to 2021

Delays to the world's first two-way 'travel bubble' hint at an unsteady road ahead.

By Bloomberg News, December 1 2020
Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble postponed to 2021

The much-touted travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong  has been delayed until early 2021 due to a rising number of Covid-19 infections in Hong Kong.

Quarantine-free travel between the two Asian hubs was due to begin on November 22, but a late surge in coronavirus cases in Hong Kong saw those plans put on hold.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said in a statement issued this afternoon that both countries have agreed to further push back the travel bubble to beyond December due to Hong Kong's ongoing high case rate.

A new start date will be reviewed later this month, CAAS said.

Reporting by David Flynn

PREVIOUS [ November 23, 2020] | The shelving of the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble shows just how delicate the process of reopening borders is, even for places that have largely contained the coronavirus, casting further doubt over any global recovery in international air travel.

Asia’s virus outbreak is dwarfed by those in the U.S. and Europe, but a recent uptick in cases in Hong Kong proved enough to delay the start of the air corridor between the two financial hubs by two weeks, dashing the plans of those who booked flights that were due to begin Sunday.

The bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore was heralded as a pandemic world-first, allowing people to travel to and from the two places without the need for quarantine.

“This is a sober reminder that the Covid-19 virus is still with us, and even as we fight to regain our normal lives, the journey will be full of ups and downs,” Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said Saturday.

The two sides agreed that the bubble would be suspended if local infections exceeded five on a rolling seven-day average.

That wasn’t even met in Hong Kong before the decision, but the recent jump in infections there was enough for authorities to apply the brakes, handing another setback to the aviation and travel industries of the two cities, which had some of the region’s busiest airports before the pandemic.

Also read: As travel bubbles begin, don't expect a miracle

Strict border curbs have helped Asia contain the coronavirus better than other parts of the world, with countries from China to New Zealand limiting the entry of travelers and imposing mandatory quarantines as a way of stopping the virus at their doors.

But the approach – which has seen some all but eliminate Covid-19 – has come at a heavy cost, decimating tourism with cross-border travel basically paralyzed.

While in-country containment of the virus has resulted in the world’s 10 busiest domestic air travel routes now all being in Asia, according to OAG Aviation, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines continue to struggle as they have no domestic travel market to fall back on.

High hopes

Cathay had described the bubble as “a hugely encouraging development and an important first step in the return of regular international air travel to and from Hong Kong,” as well as a “milestone showcase” for other travel bubbles.

Cathay’s traffic numbers for October slumped 98.6% from a year earlier to just 38,541 passengers. Singapore Airlines carried 35,500 passengers last month, down 98.2%.

An increase in cases in either Singapore or Hong Kong was always a risk for those who booked tickets when the bubble plan was announced on November 11. It’s still possible to travel between the two cities, but a mandatory quarantine applies on both sides.

“That is the main deterrent, I have no interest in sitting in a hotel room for two weeks – it’s not healthy,” said Mungo Paterson, 42, a Briton living in Hong Kong who booked a December 7 flight to Singapore shortly after the bubble plan was made public.

“I was excited when they announced it, I thought ‘here we go,’” said Paterson, who planned to go to Singapore for work and to see his sister and her family. “I’m now holding off confirming until December 2. I think there’s a 50-50 chance the flight will happen.”

New infections

After a long lull with just a handful of cases a day, the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong prompted the government to impose tighter social-distancing rules and to close schools again.

The city reported 68 new infections Saturday, with all but seven locally transmitted, a sign the virus is spreading in the community. To encourage people to take virus tests, the government plans to offer a payment of HK$5,000 (A$883) to anyone who tests positive.

Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines were due to fly a return trip each on Sunday and then three or four a week until starting daily services next month.

Passenger numbers were to be limited to 200 per flight. After the suspension, the carriers offered refunds or seats on non-travel bubble flights, which require passengers to undertake quarantine.

The bubble would replace that with virus tests and a condition that arrivals can’t have traveled internationally in the previous 14 days.

Dim outlook

Hong Kong and Singapore’s economies are heavily reliant on tourist and transit travel, and Transport Minister Ong has warned that the closing of borders puts Singapore’s very future at stake.

The city-state has agreements with a handful of countries allowing business or essential travel under certain circumstances, but none reached the stage of the plan with Hong Kong. Singapore reported 12 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, all of them in travelers coming from overseas.

Global coronavirus infections topped 58 million over the weekend, with daily increases in the U.S. nearing 200,000, yet it took fewer than 100 local cases in Hong Kong for the bubble plan to be put on ice.

Singapore and Hong Kong have said they hope their agreement can be a model for other nations trying to open up, but the delay further clouds the outlook for anyone with ambitions for travel, not just between those two cities, but everywhere else too.

Air traffic globally is expected to be at just 33% of 2019 levels at the end of this year, and “hopefully” at 50% to 60% by the end of 2021, Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said Friday.

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

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1204

Sad but does send a bad signal about the likelihood of any bubbles getting off the ground before vaccine is widely distributed.  It looks like int'l travel won't be a thing for 2021 but hopefully comes back strong in 2022.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 517

Hopefully it won't be that bad. I think all indications are travel will return in 2021, but most likely only sometime in the second half of the year. Entire industries will be decimated if we continue waiting for this elusive vaccine.


09 May 2020

Total posts 568

South Korea and Japan isn’t looking too good either.

Curiously Vietnam and Cambodia hasn’t been into the limelight so far. Developing a ATB with Taiwan can be a political timebomb for SIN

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 517

Cambodia is never in the limelight because it's just too small and insignificant a country, even for Singapore.

People are interested in Thailand, which attracts 10 times more international visitors than Cambodia, despite the latter's GDP contribution from tourism being over 10% higher. Also, Thailand is more of a business and of course medical as well as transit destination than Cambodia.

If you're mentioning Cambodia, you might as well talk about Laos or Myanmar. Same thing. Insignificant markets for Australian tourism or business travel; no direct flights from Aus either.

BTW Cambodia recently strengthened it's quarantine requirements, now mandating a 14 day hotel quarantine for all. The previous arrangement was you spend 2 days in a quarantine camp or hotel where you get tested, and if all passengers test negative the rest of the 14 days can be spent in self-isolation, but many people, including a lot of expats, didn't follow this rule so they changed it. Apparently short-term business travellers may still be able to quarantine under the old conditions but everyone else spends 14 days in a hotel (or quarantine camp for locals), the same arrangement as in neighboring Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. As in most countries in the region, locals are free and foreigners (expats, tourists etc.) pay to stay in a hotel.

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