Camera shutters went off in rapid succession as we entered the Incheon International Airport arrivals hall.
None of us passengers on Korean Air flight KE646 from Singapore was a hallyu (or Korean wave) celebrity and none was ready for the media scrum, having taken an unusual six-hour flight and undergone stringent document and immigration checks.
“People here are very excited because you are the first foreign tourists they have seen in a long time,” explained an airport official.
Not that many of us were actual tourists. Of the 54 Singaporeans that arrived on that Nov 15 morning flight, more than half were press or travel agency representatives. And of the 120 passengers, the majority seemed to be Koreans.
The press and travel reps were being hosted by the Korean Tourism Organisation (Singapore) on the first vaccinated travel lane (VTL) familiarisation tour to the country. Singapore began opening VTLs – bilateral quarantine-free air travel corridors for travellers fully vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus with various countries – in September.
Compared with Germany (one of the first countries Singapore launched a VTL with and a route I travelled in October), entry to South Korea was more tedious, because more paperwork was required. Having heard horror stories of VTL trips going awry because of a single missing document, I had been vigilant with my pre-departure checklist.
The crucial requirement for boarding a VTL flight is that the passenger must have had their second vaccination at least 14 days before departure. The vaccination must have been given in either of the VTL partner countries and the would-be tourist must not have left their home country during those 14 days.
Other requirements differ according to each destination country. Some require the traveller to have a negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction ) test 48 hours to 72 hours before departure, for example, while others do not require the test for Singapore arrivals. At least, not yet.
It’s important to note, too, that if a passenger arrives on any flight other than a dedicated VTL flight, it’s likely they’ll have to quarantine upon arrival even if they fulfil all the other requirements.
At least one passenger has had to turn back after landing in Singapore from Germany because he had taken the wrong type of flight and would have had to serve a 14-day quarantine if he chose to remain.
My pre-departure checklist consisted of the following, all of which I needed to be able to show in printed form at Changi Airport or upon arrival at Incheon: application and approval of K-ETA (South Korea’s “electronic travel authorisation”); notarised proof of having been fully inoculated with a World Health Organisation -approved Covid-19 vaccine ; insurance of at least 30 million Korean won (S$34,000) against Covid-related costs; a negative result for a PCR test carried out within 72 hours before departure from Singapore; booking confirmation for an on-arrival PRC test at Incheon Airport.
Having scrambled to assemble the documentation, I then had to find a printer. Who has one of those these days? Not me, nor apparently any of my friends.
I arrived at Changi Airport much earlier than I would have done in pre-Covid times – gone are the days when you could check in online and simply do a bag drop at the airport. My documents were checked carefully and I boarded – all in good time.
Although being on one of the first VTL flights came with a certain amount of stress – even the relevant authorities were unsure of a process that was new to everyone – it also meant the aircraft wasn’t full. There was no restriction on the sale of tickets for social distancing reasons, according to an airline official, but our flight was at less than 60 per cent capacity, although all seats in business class were taken.
During the flight we had to fill in more forms, which included another health and travel history declaration and, upon arrival, travellers have to download a Korea Disease Control and Prevention (KCDA) app, for health declarations and daily self-monitoring.
Having landed, we queued for 80 minutes or more for our vaccination and PCR test documents to be checked. We then cleared immigration and customs quickly, picked up our luggage – and stepped into the fanfare.
Once welcome speeches and photo shoots were completed, we were given PCR tests (visitors staying in South Korea for eight days or more will have to do another of these on their sixth or seventh day), and could then leave the airport.
After checking into Incheon’s Paradise City Hotel and getting our vaccination status and PCR tests verified, we were told to wait in our rooms until the results were released. Once they had been delivered – between 4pm and 5pm, about seven or eight hours after touchdown – we were free to explore Incheon, Seoul and beyond.
Apart from having to show proof of vaccination and write down our particulars before being allowed entry to anywhere (citizens have to use a contact-tracing app) and “report” our daily conditions on the KCDA app, life in South Korea doesn’t feel any more restrictive than in Singapore. And, unlike in the Lion City, you are allowed to dine out in a group of more than two.
I am now enjoying seeing a new country. The updating of my Singapore SafeTravel app, pre-booking of an on-arrival PCR test at Changi Airport and the PCR or antigen rapid test needed 48 hours before getting on my flight home are all for another day.
Bring on the bulgogi and bossam !
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.