As travel bubbles begin, don't expect a miracle

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) – This Sunday (Nov 22), the post-Covid travel era will begin at airports in Hong Kong and Singapore. Two hundred passengers, pre-screened for the virus, will board flights in each city bound for the other. Upon arrival, they’ll be tested again. If they’re negative, they can then roam free – without having to undergo the two-week quarantines required of other travellers.

It’s the world’s first-known Covid travel bubble, and the devastated global tourism industry has pinned its hopes on a successful roll-out. Unfortunately, even if the experiment works, it won’t herald the return of anything like the freewheeling air culture of pre-pandemic life. Instead, it will probably signal a newly expensive and rarefied era of travel – one that’s very unlikely to support an industry that depends on cheap flights.

It is no accident that this experiment is happening in the Asia-Pacific. For two decades, air travel has expanded more rapidly here than anywhere else. In 2010, 15.9 million people visited Thailand; in 2019, 39.8 million visited, more than two-thirds of them from Asia.

Few of those travellers arrived in a first-class cabin. Instead, their Thai beach holidays were mostly enabled by the explosive growth of low-cost airlines. That had an immense effect on tourist flows: From 2011 to 2018, weekly flights between China and Thailand rose from 200 to 1,300, while the proportion of those taken on a budget airline soared from 4 per cent to 44 per cent. All those bargains came to a halt this year thanks to Covid.

In Thailand, foreign visitors for 2020 are expected to decline by a whopping 83 per cent, with most of the arrivals coming before the lockdown. Other countries are facing similar blows to their travel and tourism industries. Budget airlines, dependent on volume to make up for thin margins, are among the worst-affected companies.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, “travel bubbles” were proposed as one solution to this devastation. But setting them up turned out to be far more difficult than expected. In Asia, where countries have been far more successful in controlling the pandemic, there is an understandable reluctance to open up.

Yet even in places where interest is strong, the practical difficulties of agreeing to seemingly simple matters – such as testing standards – have held things up. Despite such impediments, Hong Kong and Singapore have managed to come to what looks like a workable agreement. The deep economic connections between the two cities – 13,654 flights went between them in 2019 – certainly helped.

Demand appears to be strong as well. During the inaugural week, in which there will be only one daily “bubble flight”, seats are already sold out. It won’t be cheap, however. Even economy-class seats are going for more than US$800 (S$1,074), far more than an equivalent ticket pre-pandemic. And that will not be the only premium attached to a bubble flight. Covid screening alone could cost as much as US$600 round trip.

In addition, travellers who test positive are expected to foot the bill for their treatment and quarantine in their destination city.

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For all that, a travel bubble is no guarantee against infection. Last week, a Caribbean cruise ship set sail for the first time since the industry was shut down in March. Despite extensive precautions, including multiple tests for everyone on board, seven passengers and two crew members tested positive just days after the ship left port. The trip was quickly aborted and the company has cancelled the rest of its cruises for 2020.

The Singapore-Hong Kong bubble might survive such an outbreak, but there is not much room for error. According to the agreement reached between the two cities, if either destination – both home to millions – records a seven-day average of five or more unlinked Covid cases, the bubble will be suspended.

Despite the risks, there are clearly plenty of people willing to take their chances to get back in the air. But the extra costs, financial and otherwise, suggest that bubbles simply are not the answer to the travel industry’s woes – in Asia or anywhere else. As with so many aspects of life impacted by Covid, only a vaccine is going to get things back to normal.

• Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels In The Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale.

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