Hong Kong’s desire to reboot its coronavirus-ravaged tourism sector by forming air travel bubbles with seven overseas destinations could prove difficult to get off the ground, with control of the pandemic, the pace of vaccination and the choice of vaccines varying across countries.
With the fourth wave of Covid-19 showing signs of abating in Hong Kong and a vaccination drive under way, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah revealed on Monday (March 29) the government had sent a new proposal to Singapore to restore a planned travel bubble while writing to six other countries about resuming talks on such plans.
A source familiar with the matter said on Tuesday (March 30) the proposal touched on Hongkongers being vaccinated as a condition for joining the travel bubble scheme, a unilateral suggestion pending the Singapore government’s input.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Tuesday morning she had told her officials to look into the arrangements needed for bilateral travel.
“Of course, vaccination will facilitate the resumption of travel to a certain extent, but I’m sure you realise that when we talk about travelling, it’s a bilateral thing,” she said, adding that it was also up to the other side to ease entry for Hongkongers.
Whether vaccination would be mandatory to travel out of Hong Kong would be for the receiving side to decide, she said. If partners such as Singapore wanted Hongkongers to be inoculated before they could enter the city state, Lam said, she would have to tell residents.
With a travel-bubble mechanism between Singapore and Hong Kong in place since November last year and inoculation campaigns under way in both places, travel experts said the city state was a front-runner over other potential countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam.
“Singapore stands a good chance of coming first on the back of the existing groundwork,” said Tommy Tam Kwong-shun, chairman of the Society of IATA Passenger Agents, a coalition of the largest travel agents in Hong Kong. “Vaccination has great importance in the success of travel bubbles in addition to pandemic control.”
Tam said the tourism industry hoped to see the border with mainland China reopened first. Beijing has previously indicated the border with Hong Kong would not be restored unless the city had achieved a zero infection rate.
“The geographic extension of the Return2HK scheme is a good sign,” he said.
Under the new arrangement, the city government will allow Hongkongers returning home by air from anywhere in China to skip quarantine provided they have tested negative for Covid-19, something that previously applied only to those coming from Guangdong province and Macau.
Below, the Post reviews the pandemic status and readiness of the potential destinations and contacted their various consulates in the city for comment.
First stop Singapore?
The city and Singapore were forced at the eleventh hour in late November to put on hold their planned travel bubble because Hong Kong was hit by its fourth wave of infections.
But commerce minister Yau said the city could now proceed with the plan following a decline in untraceable infections since the beginning of this month, to below the threshold of a weekly average of five cases.
Hong Kong has largely kept its fourth wave at bay, and recently logged two days with no local infections. It has a tally of 11,461 confirmed infections and 205 related deaths.
But the pace of vaccination remains low, with about six per cent of its 7.5 million population having received at least one dose of vaccine.
Singapore has fared better, with no local infections reported for most of March.
June Ang, a 31-year-old Singaporean entrepreneur based in Hong Kong, wants to join the travel bubble after the previous delay caused disruptions to her financial advisory business.
Ang, who is “cautiously optimistic”, said she got a Covid-19 jab just to “be on standby” when the bubble opened, as officials had hinted that vaccination would be a requirement.
“I’m monitoring the local cases in Hong Kong on a daily basis,” she said. “When the travel bubble is up, I hope to be one of the first few to book flights and save a lot of quarantine time in Singapore.”
Japan a distant dream
A favourite destination of Hongkongers, Japan has experienced an unstable virus situation over the past three months and more people have fallen ill since the start of March.
With 472,000 Covid-19 patients and more than 9,100 fatalities, the nation’s decision to turn away an estimated 600,000 visitors for the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July and a slow start on vaccinations means a travel bubble is relatively distant.
“The bubble with Hong Kong looks like it will take place at a later stage even though many Hongkongers cannot wait to travel there again,” Tam said.
The Japanese consulate in Hong Kong said a plan was “still under negotiation” and therefore it was not able to disclose details for now.
The country only opened its doors for its long-term residents to return from places including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Taiwan in September last year but the scheme was suspended on Tuesday.
Japan started its vaccination programme last month, becoming one of the last countries to do so. The government delayed the roll-out to conduct more tests on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Thailand, jabs consensus needed?
Thai authorities will allow vaccinated foreigners to travel to holiday island Phuket without undergoing quarantine in July. The country is rolling out the Chinese-made Sinovac Biotech vaccine and the European-made AstraZeneca jab.
Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said any travel links Hong Kong was going to agree to would involve a consensus on vaccines. Hong Kong uses Germany’s BioNTech and mainland China’s Sinovac.
Australia, New Zealand in bubble already
The Australian consulate said its government received a letter from the Hong Kong government about future travel arrangements and the possible reconnection of travel links.
While Australia had established one travel bubble, with New Zealand, the consulate said any expansion beyond that would require “a step-by-step process underpinned by health advice”.
Existing border controls in Australia require passengers permitted to enter the country to present a negative Covid-19 test before boarding a flight while vaccinated passengers still have to go through 14 days’ quarantine upon arrival.
Australia and New Zealand have both registered very few Covid-19 cases in the past three to four months.
Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack said earlier this month his country had held “productive discussions” with Singapore over forming a travel bubble.
About 590,000 out of Australia’s population of 25 million have been vaccinated. New Zealand’s vaccination programme started last month and the authorities planned to have the 5 million population vaccinated by the end of this year.
Vietnam a no-go
All foreigners have been banned from entering the country since March 22 in response to the resurgence of Covid-19. Vietnam has a short-term travel deal with Japan which allows stays for business travellers.
However, the scheme has reportedly mainly been used by diplomats since its launch in November last year.
South Korea in travel bubble talks
South Korean finance minister Hong Nam-ki said earlier this month his country was also in talks with other places to form travel bubbles, though he did not name the destinations. The Taiwanese government later said it had been in talks with South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam over such a scheme.
South Korea earlier this month announced plans to have a quarter of its 52 million population vaccinated by June. On a daily basis, there were about 300 - 400 new cases in March, jacking up the nation’s total to over 103,000 and more than 1,700 deaths as of March 30.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.