Officials from Singapore and Hong Kong have agreed to a travel bubble that will allow leisure travel for almost all their residents without the need for quarantine or a controlled itinerary.
In a media briefing on Thursday, Singapore transport minister Ong Ye Kung said local health care experts had endorsed the plan, which would require travelers from both sides to have spent 14 days in either city before departure. They will also need to present negative Covid-19 test results.
Ong’s announcement, held at the same time Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, Edward Yau Tang-wah, briefed the media, signaling that both sides have come to an agreement on most issues.
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Neither side had given a firm date for the start of the travel bubble, but they agreed it could happen in a matter of weeks.
Health experts supported the plan with caution and economists said the travel bubble could rescue the airline and tourism businesses hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
There are “no better two geographies” that can start a travel bubble in a bid to revive their stalled economies, said Dr Jeremy Lim, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
Lim said Hong Kong and Singapore have similar capacities in testing and contact tracing. The travel bubble might increase the risk of coronavirus infection, but the economic benefits of restarting travel and connectivity need to be considered, Lin added.
Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases expert at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital in Singapore, described the travel bubble as a “calculated gamble”, but added that the current environment was ripe for such a plan and that its success was a matter of putting the right virus-detection procedures in place.
Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking, said vulnerable industries such as aviation and leisure travel would gain a much-needed lifeline when facing long-term economic woes.
“We don’t know when we will ever get back to the 1.6 million tourists a month, but we still need to take that calibrated approach to open up to help some of those businesses at least get on that road to recovery even though it’s extremely bumpy,” Song said, referring to the average monthly number of tourists who entered Singapore before the pandemic struck.
Before the pandemic, about a million trips were made between the two regional hubs a year, according to the tourism boards of Singapore and Hong Kong.
Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC Bank, said many Singaporeans who have not traveled since earlier this year are now suffering from cabin fever. The prospects of traveling would have “high novelty value” for both Singaporeans and Hongkongers, with Singapore’s economy reaping some benefits, she said.
Visitors from Hong Kong, she said, would provide some relief for Singapore’s hard-hit aviation and hospitality industries. She also noted the possibility of “revenge spending” by Hongkongers hitting the city state’s main shopping district of Orchard Road.
“Every bit helps, especially for the Orchard Road retailers, which cater more to tourists as compared to the suburban shopping centers which cater more to local shoppers,” added Ling.
Airline stock prices jumped up shortly after news of the travel bubble was publicized. Cathay Pacific Airways soared more than 6%, while Singapore Airlines rose by 0.5%.
The news generated significant excitement for both sides. Online, Google searches for “Hong Kong” peaked right after the announcement at 3pm, and “Hong Kong” was among the top 10 trending terms on Twitter in Singapore.
Singapore’s 323,000 foreign workers living in mega dormitories, who have borne the brunt of infections, are not included in the scheme – a request made by Hong Kong, Ong said.
Both sides would also have a quota on the number of travelers allowed to enter and they would have to take specific flights. Both also plan to agree on an incidence rate of the virus, at which point both would – through adjusting the number of flights or suspending the flights – quickly scale back on the travel bubble.
Singapore transport minister Ong Ye Kung said that given the number of daily cases in the two cities – both have been at or below 10 the past week – the risk of a Hongkonger bringing the infection into the city was “not very different if you come from Jurong, or Bedok or Tampines”, he said in reference to neighborhoods in Singapore.
“It’s a small step but a significant one because both Hong Kong and Singapore are regional aviation hubs,” Ong said of the bubble. “For the two of us to be able to control the epidemic, to come together to discuss and establish this air travel bubble, hopefully sets a model for us to forge more such relationships and partnerships.”
Hong Kong is also looking to form travel bubbles with 10 more countries, including Australia, Germany and Japan.
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