Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble delay dims rebound hopes

Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble delay dims rebound hopes

Hong Kong's Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau speaks to the media on a two-week postponement of the travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore, following a rise in Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong on Saturday. (Reuters photo)
Hong Kong's Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau speaks to the media on a two-week postponement of the travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore, following a rise in Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong on Saturday. (Reuters photo)

The shelving of the keenly-anticipated Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble shows just how delicate the process of reopening borders is -- even for places that have largely contained the coronavirus.

The cities' virus outbreaks are far less intense than in places such as the United States and Europe, but a recent uptick in cases in Hong Kong proved enough to delay the start of the air corridor between the two financial hubs by two weeks, dashing the plans of those who booked flights that were due to begin on Sunday.

The bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore was heralded as a pandemic world-first, allowing people to travel to and from the two places without the need for quarantine. Authorities are reviewing a new launch date.

"This is a sober reminder that the Covid-19 virus is still with us, and even as we fight to regain our normal lives, the journey will be full of ups and downs," Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Saturday.

The two sides agreed that the bubble would be suspended if local infections exceeded five on a rolling seven-day average.

That wasn't even met in Hong Kong before the decision, but the recent jump in infections there was enough for authorities to apply the brakes, handing another setback to the aviation and travel industries of the two cities, which had some of the region's busiest airports before the pandemic.

"The travel bubble will eventually be resumed, although whether it will be in two weeks' time is hard to say as it depends on how quickly the virus situation in Hong Kong improves," Bloomberg Intelligence analyst James Teo said. "Even when it does happen, we should not expect plain sailing from then on."

"Once more contact-tracing is done in Hong Kong and most cases become linked, even if new daily cases remain high, unlinked cases may start falling below five a day consistently, allowing the travel bubble to start," he added.

Strict border curbs have helped Asia contain the coronavirus better than other parts of the world, with countries from China to New Zealand limiting the entry of travellers and imposing mandatory quarantines as a way of stopping the virus at their doors.

But the approach -- which has seen some all but eliminate Covid-19 -- has come at a heavy cost, decimating tourism with cross-border travel basically paralysed.

While in-country containment of the virus has resulted in the world's 10 busiest domestic air travel routes now all being in Asia, according to OAG Aviation Worldwide Ltd, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines continue to struggle as they have no domestic travel market to fall back on.

"Even if the Hong Kong-Singapore corridor opens, the boost to the two aviation hubs will be limited,'' said Rico Merkert, professor of transport at the University of Sydney's business school.

"Singapore Airlines and Cathay will continue to struggle because they can't funnel onto the route those travellers who would normally arrive from Europe and the US,'' he said.

"Without that feeder traffic, those bubbles will at best be limited to the local population," Merkert said. "International travel is going to remain a tricky affair."

Cathay's traffic numbers for October slumped 98.6% from a year earlier to just 38,541 passengers. Singapore Airlines carried 35,500 passengers last month, down 98.2%.

"Bubbles provide a little bit of incremental additional international traffic in the interim period until the pandemic ends," Sobie Aviation founder Brendan Sobie said on Bloomberg Television, adding that the impact of the bubble plan "is mostly symbolic.''

"A full recovery in air traffic will still take a few years, even with a vaccine, though bubbles will help get the process moving,'' he said.

An increase in cases in either Singapore or Hong Kong was always a risk for those who booked tickets when the bubble plan was announced on Nov 11. It's still possible to travel between the two cities, but a mandatory quarantine applies on both sides.

"That is the main deterrent, I have no interest in sitting in a hotel room for two weeks -- it's not healthy," said Mungo Paterson, 42, a Briton living in Hong Kong who booked a Dec 7 flight to Singapore shortly after the bubble plan was made public.

"I was excited when they announced it, I thought 'here we go'," said Paterson, who planned to go to Singapore for work and to see his sister and her family. "I'm now holding off confirming until Dec 2. I think there's a 50-50 chance the flight will happen."

Singapore and Hong Kong have said they hope their agreement can be a model for other nations trying to open up, but the delay further clouds the outlook for anyone with ambitions for travel, not just between those two cities, but everywhere else too.

"Air traffic globally is expected to be at just 33% of 2019 levels at the end of this year, and hopefully at 50% to 60% by the end of 2021,'' Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said on Friday.

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