Just a few short months ago, in markets from Hong Kong to Japan and Australia, coronavirus cases were falling and domestic travel was recovering. There was even talk of opening international travel corridors in Thailand and Indonesia.
But then, everything changed. Hong Kong’s third wave saw over 100 new cases per day; Melbourne and Auckland went into lockdown; surges were reported in Japan and Korea; and Vietnam experienced its first Covid-19 deaths after being virus-free for months.
With the new wave of infections, the Thailand and Indonesia travel bubble schemes were put on hold, mirroring what has happened in other regions. Where corridors had been allowed – for instance, between Spain and France with the UK – a sudden “popping” of the bubbles left travellers facing a two-week quarantine back home.
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How can travellers make plans with confidence when bubbles continue to pop? Will travel bubbles be sustainable, or are they destined to be as fragile and temporary as their namesakes?
For travel bubbles to be successful, participating countries need to work in partnership and agree on robust test and trace procedures to safely adjust or eliminate quarantine periods. Importantly, we need coordination between governments and organisations within the travel ecosystem to get the right protocols in place and rebuild traveller confidence.
Consistency of protocols across multiple markets will be key. Bilateral agreements are a strong starting place, but ultimately this needs to scale up to multilateral alignment – an approach now being championed by the Airports Council International and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
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Will talks on Covid-19 travel bubbles get Hong Kong anywhere?
We have had nearly eight months of disruption, with some experts predicting the virus will surge in autumn and peak in winter. A standardised approach can make these imminent seasonal peaks more manageable. Measures should already be in place to help manage and mitigate the risks; in particular, robust testing procedures on departure and arrival.
Introducing the widespread use of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing as soon as possible, where not yet deployed, is the next logical step following the implementation of pre-travel testing requirements for incoming passengers in several places. A PCR test, also known as an antigen test, detects the sequence of the virus RNA and is highly accurate. Testing could be the key to safely opening leisure travel bubbles and protecting the region’s corridors for business travel.
IATA expects global airline losses to top US$84 billion in 2020, with Asia-Pacific seeing the biggest net profit drop of US$29 billion. Governments recognise the travel sector as being economically critical. The Hong Kong government’s investment in Cathay Pacific serves to protect Hong Kong’s role as a global aviation hub and support Hong Kong’s long-term economic development.
Travellers are ready to return to the skies, when it’s safe to do so – but clarity around travel restrictions is required to instil confidence. A recent survey conducted by Collinson’s travel experiences programme, Priority Pass, revealed that 71 per cent of global travellers are ready to start flying again either immediately or within three to six months. But, critically, 74 per cent said a key barrier was lack of clarity around quarantines and border controls.
A similar call for clarity was echoed by the business travel community. With Asian business travellers twice as likely as European travellers to extend their trip into the weekend, according to findings published in 2015, they will now need more guidance from employers and travel providers on how and when they are being protected.
To fly again, travellers must first be certified free of Covid-19
While some employers are prepared, others have work to do. Now is the time for businesses to set clear processes, policies and standards so that when travel restarts, employees feel safe and protected.
Coronavirus-safe travel bubbles have the potential to restart business and leisure travel in Asia and globally, but only if robust procedures and guidelines are in place. Testing provides a safe way of keeping the skies open while dramatically reducing the risk of bringing Covid-19 back into countries that have it under control – but testing is only one solution, and ultimately, travel demand won’t increase without traveller confidence.
Coordination and collaboration will prove essential to this. Safe and effective travel recovery is possible, but we must agree upon the changes that need to occur and, most importantly, work together to implement them.
Todd Handcock is president, Asia-Pacific, at Collinson
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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