Travel bans to protect populations from imported -Covid-19 infections are preventing the resumption of international commerce and tourism, and cannot remain in place indefinitely. If economies are to get moving again, governments have to explore so-called travel bubbles by striking deals to allow people to cross borders without having to undergo extended periods of quarantine.
The challenge is ensuring that restrictions make communities feel safe, but are not so cumbersome that travellers are deterred. Hong Kong authorities are under intense pressure from the business community and the retail, tourism and convention and exhibition industries to ease restrictions, and the revelation that initial contact has been made with 11 countries is welcome.
What conditions should Hong Kong travel bubbles carry?
Most western European countries have opened borders to one another, and business and holiday travel is now routine. That is despite many still experiencing thousands of new infections each day and the persistent threat of outbreaks that may prompt a return to lockdowns.
Still, commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah said nations the government was either already talking to, or had aspirations to open discussions with, included three from Europe – France, Germany and Switzerland – while among the others were Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.
When it comes to reopening, science and psychology have to be the guiding forces; with vigilance and trust as the basis, locations with low rates of death and infection can forge agreements under certain circumstances that can get economies moving again.
Regional travel bubbles make the most sense, although the European Union in July lifted restrictions imposed in March on 14 countries, including Japan and South Korea. So far, Hong Kong’s only concession has been to executives of top companies listed on the stock exchange arriving from the mainland. South Korea and Singapore have struck deals with a number of Chinese destinations for essential and official travel that require testing and a reduction of the quarantine period. But Thailand and Indonesia are reconsidering plans for reopening to visitors after a resurgence in local cases.
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Negotiating is not so easy, as Hong Kong has found; while Macau and Guangdong province are obvious first destinations for a reopening, technical issues are still hampering deals. Travel has always been about trust, but the manner with which governments have handled Covid-19 has coloured the way they now see one another. Unrestricted travel will involve places with similar pandemic conditions setting common rules and having faith in one another’s health systems. Vigilance and being able to respond quickly to circumstances have to be at the centre of opening-up strategies.
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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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