THE PANDEMIC, as its name indicates, has been a border-hopping global catastrophe. But for many people it has made the world feel more local. First, countries closed their borders. Then, locked-down families were forced to shut their own front doors to all but themselves.
Of the many industries ravaged by covid-19, tourism has a claim to be the hardest hit. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an industry association, as many as 174m tourism-related jobs could be lost around the globe in 2020. It calculates that the decline in travel could cost the world economy $4.7trn this year (last year it reckons the sector contributed $8.9trn to global GDP, or 10.3% of the total). With new vaccines unlikely to be widely available until well into 2021, it is little wonder that countries are looking for safe ways to open their borders.
On November 22nd Hong Kong and Singapore will begin to test the world’s most comprehensive air-travel bubble. From that date, travellers will be able to fly between the two cities without need for quarantine, and without any restrictions on what they can do when they arrive—whether it is taking in the sights, visiting family or conducting business. Flights will be at first limited to one per day, carrying 200 passengers. If all goes well, capacity will be increased incrementally. (For comparison, in 2019 people made 2.9m flights between the two.)
There are of course precautions in place. Foremost among them is the idea of “double protection”, says Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce. That means flyers will have to secure a negative test result not more than 72 hours before travelling, and face another test in the airport when they arrive at their destination. Hong Kong will have a dedicated facility at its airport, so that travellers will spend around four hours waiting for a result, down from around eight earlier this year. Other safeguards include ensuring that travellers have not been outside either Hong Kong or Singapore for 14 days prior to flying.
Though there have been other attempts to get cross-border travel going again, none has gone this far, says Brian King of Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. Australia and New Zealand allow some travel, but it is restricted by region and some quarantine is also required. Plans to implement a fully fledged version by Christmas are all but dead, following a recent re-emergence of the virus in South Australia. Other countries, such as Japan, have special arrangements for certain business travellers. The Baltic states ended their travel bubble earlier this year when covid overran their borders.
The rest of the world will therefore be watching keenly to see how this latest attempt goes. They may be long-standing rivals, each making a claim to being Asia’s pre-eminent financial hub, but Hong Kong and Singapore have intrinsic advantages in pairing up, thinks Mr King. Both are small, with a single point of entry, making any outbreaks of the disease easier to trace. Most important, they currently have the coronavirus under control. Over the past week Hong Kong averaged around three local cases a day, Singapore less than one. What is more, they trust each other’s testing programmes. That will be the minimum requirement for other countries looking to follow suit, reckons Moritz Kraemer, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford.
An attempt to open up Europe over the summer, with travel permitted within “green zones” with lower levels of covid-19, foundered. It was attempted while the prevalence of the disease was still too high. Europe’s second wave of infections was the inevitable consequence, says Mr Kraemer. Confounding matters was a lack of rigorous testing at borders, and ineffective tracking schemes within countries. Not only did this mean that infectious travellers were allowed in, but it also made it more difficult to discern whether clusters were linked to recently imported cases or homegrown ones. Neither concern has yet been adequately addressed. Even if the virus were not running rampant around the continent, that would need to be sorted out before the experiment is tried there again.
Much of Asia is freer of such concerns. Mr Yau says Hong Kong is discussing possible bubbles with 11 other governments, mainly within the region. Another scheme, called Return2HK, will shortly be launched for locals wishing to travel from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Australia, too, is considering opening its borders to certain low-risk Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and parts of China—although the extent to which quarantine might be relaxed or movement within the country curtailed has not been revealed.
Such agreements are likely to be fragile. Notwithstanding the economic benefits, any sense that a country has needlessly imported another wave of infections from abroad will put governments in hot water. The Hong Kong-Singapore bubble will be suspended should either city report an average, over a seven-day period, of more than five untraceable cases of covid-19 a day (ie, neither known to be imported from abroad, nor linked to a recognised cluster).
What of the travellers themselves? Business trips may rebound fastest, although firms will need to be convinced that the measures are close to watertight before they dispatch their road warriors abroad, says Benson Tang of the Corporate Travel Community, another industry group. And many will want contingency plans should one of their employees succumb to covid-19 abroad. But there is little doubt that they are keen to send their staff packing. Activities such as sales, training and closing deals are all better done face-to-face, reckons Mr Tang. And those running lucrative corporate events are itching to get delegates back into conference halls and away from Zoom. When China ended internal travel restrictions in April, business travel was soon back up to 80% of its 2019 level, according to a report by McKinsey, a consultancy, and Skift, a research firm. That suggests a lot of pent-up demand when the rest of the world reopens.
Leisure travellers will be slower to respond, according to the McKinsey-Skift survey. Tourists are likely to continue to opt for more local trips, at least for a while. They may be wary of being stranded abroad, or suddenly being subject to new quarantine rules on their return, as happened to many in Europe over the summer.
So in the longer term, perhaps the best hope of carefree travel for Europeans and Americans will be vaccination. Some less-affected countries could insist upon covid-19 inoculation as a condition of travel, much as, for example, many Africans need a yellow-fever jab to visit Australia. Until that time, the world must inflate its travel bubbles cautiously. Better that they float limply and hopefully than pop.