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international

Hong Kong and Singapore set date for long-awaited travel bubble


A quarantine-free air travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore is finally slated to get off the ground with a start date of May 26, following setbacks that led to the plan initially being shelved last November.

Largely shut off from the rest of the world during the pandemic, the two sides have been in talks for months to revive the travel corridor. In statements and briefings Monday, they laid out details and requirements for would-be travelers, with Hong Kong saying people must have had two vaccine doses at least 14 days before flying. There's no such requirement from Singapore.

Cathay Pacific Airlines and Singapore Airlines will operate the flights, with the first Cathay trip slated to leave Hong Kong at 9:10 a.m. on May 26. Singapore Air's departure that day is 8:40 a.m. They will start daily flights in the bubble from June 9 or 10. The agreement limits each flight to 200 travelers.

The travel bubble could lift traffic for both airlines by up to 3%, according to Bloomberg Intelligence transportation analyst James Teo, who called it a "small but significant step forward."

Preparations for the travel corridor between the two major financial hubs have stuttered ever since it was shelved in November after coronavirus cases picked up in Hong Kong. A recent plan to announce its revival was canceled last week by Singapore, people familiar with the matter said at the time.

"It has been a long few months, but the conditions are now ripe again," Singapore's Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a statement. "Both sides will need to stay very vigilant in the next month, so that we can launch the first flights smoothly."

Despite occasional flare-ups, including at a dormitory for migrant workers in Singapore last week, Covid-19 caseloads in both cities are low and life is returning to normal. Hong Kong may reopen bars later this week and lengthen restaurant opening hours, among other steps to ease social distancing. Bringing outbreaks under control was key to opening the travel bubble.

Hong Kong Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Edward Yau said the requirement to get vaccinated, which doesn't apply to children under 16, was designed to encourage people to sign up for inoculations. Only about 11% of the Hong Kong population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to Bloomberg's Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker -- less than half the rate in Singapore.

Travelers will have to take Covid-19 tests and can't have visited any places other than Hong Kong or Singapore in the two weeks before departure. Travelers from Hong Kong will have to use Singapore's TraceTogether mobile app, while those coming from Singapore will need the LeaveHomeSafe app in Hong Kong. Records will be retained after the trip.

Singapore Airlines called the travel bubble "an important milestone" in its recovery from the pandemic, while Cathay also welcomed the agreement and said it could be a showcase for the opening of similar lanes with other popular destinations.

Fares on a return Singapore Airlines' flight in economy class on May 26 jumped after the announcement to about $730 (SG$968), from $618. Return economy tickets on Cathay were listed at $902 (HK$7,003) on the airline's website, compared with $490 (HK$3,803) the previous day.

Hong Kong and Singapore have tight restrictions on travel. The former has been essentially off limits to non-residents and even they face lengthy stays in designated quarantine facilities upon arrival, which means that many people haven't traveled at all since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago. That's been reflected in Cathay's numbers: The airline flew just 598 passengers a day on average in March.

Singapore last week eased restrictions on travelers from Hong Kong, who now can stay in home isolation for seven days rather than two weeks in a government-chosen hotel. Among its efforts to open up its borders, Singapore set up an area near Changi Airport to host business travelers without them needing to quarantine, provided they don't leave the facility.

The plan comes as other parts of the world take steps to reopen more widely for travel. The European Union will recommend loosening restrictions to allow in fully vaccinated U.S. tourists this summer, the New York Times reported. Greece is starting to allow U.S. travelers earlier if they've been vaccinated or have proof of a negative Covid-19 test. The U.S. government, meanwhile, has said it won't issue so-called vaccine passports due to privacy concerns.

Singapore has also proposed a travel bubble with Taiwan, Taipei-based Central News Agency reported Monday, citing Ong.

Disparate pandemic-related rules around the world have somewhat determined which vaccines people opt to take. In Hong Kong, there are two options, one made by China's Sinovac Biotech and the other by Pfizer and BioNTech. China has so far only recognized Chinese-made shots, which means people eager to travel to the mainland have been more likely to sign up for Sinovac. But as its vaccines aren't approved in the U.S. or Western Europe, those with family or business ties there are more inclined to take the other shot.

As of Sunday in Hong Kong, about 688,100 Sinovac vaccine doses had been administered and the total for Pfizer-BioNTech was 587,100.

Published : April 27, 2021

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Felix Tam, Kyunghee Park