Are we ready for an Asean travel balloon?
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Are we ready for an Asean travel balloon?

Some of the first Chinese passengers to enter Thailand under the Special Tourist Visa board a bus at Suvarnabhumi Airport to take them to their 14-day quarantine destination in October. Photo: Somchai Poomlard
Some of the first Chinese passengers to enter Thailand under the Special Tourist Visa board a bus at Suvarnabhumi Airport to take them to their 14-day quarantine destination in October. Photo: Somchai Poomlard

Air travel in Asean remains highly restricted, especially compared to most other regions. With Covid-19 vaccines now being rolled out, should countries wait before opening borders?

Waiting could end up being costly because turning vaccines into vaccinations to achieve herd immunity will take time. Reaching herd immunity may be required before allowing quarantine-free travel because those vaccinated may still be infectious, despite being immune from the disease.

Before we achieve herd immunity, we should start working toward an Asean-wide travel bubble by expanding, upgrading and consolidating the plethora of unilateral and bilateral travel arrangements that currently operate in the region.

Travel corridors or "green lanes" are the most common, which allow reciprocal travel with testing but without quarantine for select groups such as businesspeople under strict conditions, such as pre-arranged itineraries. To have a significant impact on the economy, however, air travel passes could unilaterally extend these terms to all travellers.

In Asean, Singapore has been leading the effort in pursuing air travel passes with partners that have controlled community transmission, such as Brunei and Vietnam. More is required.

The economic benefits of travel passes could be increased if the partner would reciprocate to create a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble. For this to happen, perceptions of health risks associated with opening borders need to converge across countries.

Some governments need to overcome an inherent bias against opening borders. That is, even when differences in infection rates suggest that inter-country movement is less risky than intra-country movement, borders remain mostly closed while easing of domestic movement continues.

The factors underlying this bias need to be addressed before travel corridors can be upgraded to travel passes, and then travel bubbles.

After that, consolidating these bilateral arrangements into a regional one -- a travel balloon -- could be pursued. For instance, the Singapore-Vietnam or Singapore-Brunei travel pass arrangements, once successfully upgraded to a bubble, could be pilot-tested to include other countries with similar infection rates.

It could start by consolidating the two, so that travel between the spokes, Brunei and Vietnam, as well as with the hub, Singapore, is quarantine-free. It could then be progressively expanded to include Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, for instance.

Such an expanded travel bubble, or travel balloon, involving up to six Asean countries that have controlled community transmission could magnify the economic benefits without significantly raising health risks, if implemented according to a plan.

The plan should involve harmonisation of Covid screening and quarantine protocols to preserve the integrity of the risk mitigation controls across countries, while facilitating seamless movement to reap maximum benefits from the increase in scale.

Protocols such as exemption of quarantine should be mutually recognised across participating countries to avoid duplication and to encourage movement between them. Mutual recognition should increase both intra-and extra-regional flows.

For example, Thailand's recent Special Tourist Visa, which opens up its tourism sector to the world but does not waive quarantine, would be more beneficial to Thailand and the region if it was part of the proposed travel balloon. This is because a European tourist, for instance, is more likely to visit Thailand and other countries if the quarantine on arrival in Thailand did not have to be repeated in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam.

The deterrent effect of quarantine on arrival is reduced is a visa enables travel to more than one country in the region.

An Asean-wide travel balloon covering all 10 members is unlikely at this stage because of significant differences in infection rates. It is unlikely that countries that have controlled community transmission will open up to countries that have not.

The Asean countries that have higher infection rates could, however, chose to recognise the quarantine observed within the six-country travel balloon, even if reciprocity is denied them. That is, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines could participate by forming air travel passes with the countries in the travel balloon.

Even without reciprocity, these four countries could benefit economically because they would receive a larger number of travellers on a relatively safe basis through the one-way arrangement. But first they must be convinced that these benefits are there to be had on a relatively safe basis.

The agreement should include an open accession clause, which would allow new members to join if health conditions improve to meet those specified in the agreement. Members could also be suspended should health conditions deteriorate to an extent deemed unsafe.

The recent deferment of the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble attests to the ability of such arrangements to have built-in safety clauses.

Consistent treatment of issues such as vaccinations will also be important. While countries may differ in terms of how and when they choose to recognise vaccinations, let alone different vaccines, these issues need to be addressed in a way that does not deter travel in the short term, while harmonisation is pursued to narrow differences in the longer term. A properly designed travel balloon could do that.

A cautious and incremental approach in moving toward an Asean travel balloon can give a lift to economic growth, yet have enough safeguards that will kick in should infections head north again. The wait for the vaccine may be over, but Asean cannot afford to wait for it to work before opening its borders.

Jayant Menon is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, and former lead economist of the Asian Development Bank.

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