Asian Countries Forge Ahead With ‘Travel Bubbles’ Amid Rising COVID Cases

Business, work-related travel to resume between select countries . . . 

Starting from mid-August, several Asian countries will move forward with ‘travel bubbles’ (arrangements between signatory countries to allow for a partial or complete lifting of cross-border travel restrictions) with important economic partners to allow for the resumption of some business and work-related travel. Beginning August 17, Singapore and Malaysia will allow holders of valid work passes in each country, as well as government- and company-sponsored travellers, to cross the border. On Thursday, the governments of Singapore and Japan made similar announcements for business travellers who are citizens of each country, as did the governments of Indonesia and South Korea.

Amid a lingering second wave . . .

The idea of travel bubbles has been around since the first wave of COVID-19 infections. But as the second wave of COVID-19 hits the Asia Pacific, wreaking havoc in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Australia, and Japan, among others, governments have become more reluctant to embrace the idea. Thailand, for example, shelved its plans to allow travel from select countries with low infection numbers in early August, despite the country’s dependence on the tourism sector for jobs and revenue. Among countries that lifted some travel restrictions, Japan and Indonesia continue to grapple with persistent domestic outbreaks, and much uncertainty remains on how increased international travel will affect travel bubble participants.

Will the bubbles burst?

Whether travel bubbles succeed depends at least in part on each country’s public health measures. Exemptions from mandatory quarantine, for example, can lead to community spread. This was the case in Hong Kong, where health officials now acknowledge that the exemption of business executives, airline staff, and government officials from quarantine rules is, in part, to blame for the territory’s recent surge in cases. The new travel bubbles between Japan and Singapore and between Singapore and Malaysia both contain similar exemptions for business travellers. What happens in these countries after travel begins is certain to provide policy insights for other countries considering similar measures.