Are Travel Bubbles the Answer to Get Economies Moving?

Southeast Asian countries are looking at the feasibility of selectively opening their borders to visitors from areas with low or no recent coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases. Their economies have recently started to reopen and have loosened quarantine measures but largely for domestic travel.

At the virtual summit in June, some ASEAN leaders proposed the easing of travel restrictions between two or more countries and even suggested an ASEAN travel corridor. This will involve close cooperation between governments in partnership with the private sector.

Also called a “travel bubble” or “green lane (or zone),” this setup allows the flow of people between safe zones and does not require a 14-day quarantine. The first travel bubble was launched on 15 May within the European Union and between only three countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—to boost tourism and the economy. Known as the Baltic bubble, these countries are sparsely populated and have few cases of infection.

Potential travel bubbles

All four BIMP-EAGA countries, which are also ASEAN members, are keen to try this concept.

Brunei Darussalam is studying proposals from the People’s Republic of China and Singapore to open a travel bubble.

Malaysia has also initiated discussions with Brunei and Singapore. It is also considering green zones with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Republic of Korea. Sabah has decided on 25 June to allow foreign traders and investors to enter the state but swab testing and home quarantine may be required. It is also planning to accept tourists by September from selected markets.

Indonesia is looking at a travel bubble initially for business travelers from Australia, Japan, People’s Republic of China, and Republic of Korea.

The Philippines is talking to “virus-free” countries about allowing direct short-haul flights to three tourist destinations, Bohol, Boracay, and Palawan, which have few cases of COVID-19. On 2 July, the country opened the first green lane for seafarers in Asia to ensure safe ship crew changes and repatriation during the pandemic. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said this is in answer to the call of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the maritime industries and will help ensure supply chains function.

Harmonizing standards and regulations

Implementing a travel bubble however is not an easy task, warns Mario Hardy, chief executive officer of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

At the third Policy Actions for COVID-19 Economic Recovery Dialogue organized and hosted online by the Asian Development Bank on 24 June, Hardy said some complex issues need to be resolved for it to work. These include health ministries agreeing on standards, such as how they will monitor the movement of people and make sure there is no resurgence of new cases of infection.

Travel bubbles require alignment of policies, coordination, and public–private sector collaboration, said Tiffany Misrahi, vice-president of World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), at the same event. She cited the Baltic bubble, where the three countries have adopted a common approach toward COVID-19.

“The private sector is looking at this (travel bubble) as a solution and they are trying to put pressure on their respective governments to accelerate it,” said Hardy. “The concept of a bubble has some validity, but it’s a complex process to put in place.

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