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HK-S'pore for 26 May; Phuket, Bali in July; Europe no to Sinovac; India curbs; Trans-Tasman start

Travelling in Covid times - as vaccinations roll out, wobbly HK-Singapore bubble for 26 May; Australia and New Zealand open safe corridor; China says entry only for those with Sinovac jabs; Europe rejects Sinovac and Iceland bars those with Russian Sputnik jabs; Thailand golf-bubbles as Covid cases rise; Phuket, Bali target July 2021 openings; India lockdowns and flight bans; Myanmar coup forces flight closures; and as vaccinations and e-certs arrive, the focus turns to Covid-19 Passports.

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by Vijay Verghese

Updated 14 May, 2021


SEE ALSO Asia medical tourism | Travel health risks in Asia | Taipei guide | Bangkok hotels | Bangkok shopping | Hong Kong hotels | Airbus vs Boeing | Travel pricing in Covid times | Covid-19 travel updates | Covid-19 leader forum | Airline Bailouts

Hong Kong outdoors could be a post-Covid healthy travel draw

Hong Kong's green and accessible outdoors may be part of the mix when travel returns fortified by safe bubbles, digital certificates, and proof of vaccinations/ photo/ Vijay Verghese

By April 2021 international travel was sluggishly stirring again as Europe toyed with its Digital Green Certificate, IATA with a Travel Pass, and others choosing their own route as in the Russian single-entry e-visa that was in effect from 1 January 2021 (some background in our earlier Covid-19 Passport comment). The Russian Sputnik V vaccination was declared invalid by Iceland in April 2021 (with those travellers barred from entry) and Europe said it would not recognise those with Chinese Sinovac vaccinations. China on the other hand has been demanding proof of a Sinovac jab for entry to the country.

Hong Kong and Singapore were once again in the hunt for a quarantine-free travel bubble for vaccinated passengers with a single flight in each direction carrying up to 200 passengers per day from 26 May 2021. Travellers from Hong Kong will require to have had two shots of BioNTech (Pfizer) or Sinovac at least 14 days prior to travel. This appeared wobbly late May as cases spiked in Singapore.

Saving The World - a fun song by Dancing Wolf - get your jabs

Saving The World (a fun song to get people vaccinated) by our Dancing Wolf trio all recorded on iPhones can be found on our 'Change is Coming' album on iTunes. Also on Spotify/ illustration: Vijay Verghese

Singaporeans do not face the same restriction but passengers in either direction will have had to have been in either city for a duration of 14 days (not including any quarantine periods) before travel. All travellers will need to take two tests for Covid within 72 hours of departure and two more upon arrival at their own cost. This would amount to roughly HK$2,800 for a passenger from Hong Kong.

A trans-Tasman travel bubble has been in place since 6 April, 2021 and the pick-up on flights has been phenomenal, agencies report.

India had several lockdowns in place (including in the capital New Delhi) by mid April 2021 to combat a serious Covid-19 surge following large political rallies and religious gatherings like the 2m-strong Kumbh Mela. A spike in fast-spreader variants also resulted in Hong Kong on 20 April banning all flights for two weeks from India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Israel’s Green Pass for domestic travel (Israelis only) was up and running by March 2021 while in Thailand, the Phuket administration had targeted a quarantine-free opening for the tourism-dependent island by 1 July 2021 for vaccinated visitors (contingent on getting 70% of locals vaccinated by then). Bali too would like a 1 July opening for so-called 'green zones' in the tourist areas of Nusa Dua, Sanur and Ubud for travellers from countries with quarantine-free bubbles in place. China meanwhile announced late March that it would restrict Mainland entry to those who had taken the Chinese-made Sinovac Covid-19 vaccination, posing a headache for travellers from India, USA and elsewhere without immediate access to this particular vaccine.

The EU initiative aims to include on a digital or printed certificate (with QR code verification) persons who have been vaccinated, have tested negative for the virus, or already recovered from Covid-19, for travel eligibility through 27 Euro-zone countries by summer of 2021. The move is complicated with some member states like Denmark coming out with their own passes and verification methods.

As Sri Lanka and Maldives (with record arrivals for the latter touching 200,000 by mid-March 2021), were struggling to keep their doors open and by May, Maldives had barred all South Asian travellers. Cambodia’s brief flirtation had come to an end by early 2021. Japan and Laos signed a safe travel corridor agreement for visitors September 2020 on contingent on a 14-day home quarantine and full Covid tests but by early 2021 Japan had 152 countries on a no-entry list.

By April 2021 Hong Kong was once again in the hunt for quarantine-free travel bubble arrangements for vaccinated travellers (Singapore a possible top candidate for as early as May) with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan while opening the doors to HK residents returning from the UK (a country that had been completely isolated following the variant strain spread). The hotel quarantine period for travellers from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore was also brought down to 14 days. The earlier Hong Kong-Singapore quarantine-free bubble failed to lift off and was pulled on 21 November 2020, one day before it was due to launch.  The Covid fourth wave in HK - so declared on 20 November - brought tighter measures and in the wake of the new UK strain discovery by end December 2020, all travellers visiting the HKSAR (save for those from China) had to undergo an extended 21-day quarantine at a designated hotel.

Singapore cancelled green lane agreements with Germany, Malaysia and South Korea - for a 'reciprocal green lane' RGL for business travel and official work - 1 February 2021 to 30 April 2021. And the 1 February Myanmar coup closed the door on all international flights (including relief services) until 31 May 2021.

By November 2020 India was open for official, business, and student visits (but not tourism or medical travel). Qualifying travellers need to reapply for visas (not eVisas), procure a Covid-free PCR test 96 hours before commencement of flight, and undergo a 14-day quarantine. Yet by late April and May 2021 a huge Covid wave was sweeping the country with lockdowns in place.

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In general, for traffic of any significance to pick up between any two points there will be four hurdles to clear – health clearances from both sides as well as government and immigration approvals, a big ask when so many countries still insist on a 14-day quarantine for foreign arrivals and returning travellers.

Quarantine protocols could make it a month-long odyssey for a weekend jaunt and not quite the picture postcard dash to a tropical idyll. Bear in mind both immigration and health requirements continue to fluctuate based on Covid-19 flattening, fresh waves and mini-outbreaks. Check the WHO Covid dashboard.

Apex travel groups like the Airports Council International (ACI) have meanwhile urged the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to put together coherrent recommendations for governments to universally 1) Adopt proportionate measures based on scientific evidence; 2) Avoid blanket quarantines; 3) Introduce better testing protocols pre and post travel; and 4) To define and recognise authentic health certificates. Says ACI Director, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, “A risk-based approach would support the concept of travel bubbles, with low risk countries requiring no testing or quarantine for travel.” By mid August the ICAO had in place an Airport Health Accreditation programme, expected to give a fillip to aviation by setting up universal protocols.

Late September last year the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called for "rapid, accurate, systematic' tests for Covid-19 to be carried out on all passengers prior to boarding in order to eliminate the need for quarantines. This is seen as a confidence-building step to encourage more open borders.

Travellers within Asia will need to look out as well for other seasonal ailments that have been elbowed off TV screens but remain a constant threat – dengue and mosquito-borne illnesses, assorted pneumonias, air pollution, and water-borne food-related bugs like cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis to name a few. See our Asian health risks report.

Further uncertainty is added by two key medical factors: Covid-19 tests are only good for the day they are administered; and the presumption that most carriers are asymptomatic. This has to be worrying for airlines, who take on a huge amount of risk managing 200-300 people on a flight in safe conditions, as well as for host countries and hotels that feel they have a grip on the coronavirus pandemic. No amount of safety protocols and Covid-free certificates and usurious health insurance premiums are going to help if a traveller comes down with symptoms.

So it all comes down to vaccinations and authenticated e-health-certificates.

The Hong Kong-Singapore quarante-free travel bubble is on the table again in summer 2021

The Hong Kong-Singapore quarante-free travel bubble is on again for 26 May 2021 as vaccines start rolling out across Asia - looking across towards Lion City's Boat Quay/ photo/ Vijay Verghese

AIRLINES have been hard hit and are keen to get back in the air as fast as possible. By April 2021 airlines trialling IATA’s digital Travel Pass included Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar, Qantas, ANA, THAI, Thai Smile and Korean Air.

How bad has it been for airlines? Late May 2020 THAI Airways International was before a Central Bankruptcy Court petitioning for a sweeping business reorganisation and NokScoot, which had failed to turn in an annual profit since its 2014 launch, was headed for closure. Its board announced end June it was moving to liquidate the airline, the first Thai Covid-19 casualty. Bangkok Airways meanwhile had added flights to Phuket along with Chiang Mai and Samui and other domestic destinations by late 2020 (waiving rebooking fees in late April 2021) with Thai AirAsia and Agoda (the online travel agency) working together on joint packages for domestic Thai tourism, seen as the recovery vehicle. Thai Vietjet too had launched a Bangkok-Khon Khaen service 30 July 2020.

On 25 March 2021 six Thai airlines – nicknamed the ‘Thai Travel Squadron’ – announced a joint approach to lower domestic airfares under the aegis of the newly created Thailand Airlines Association.

Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon combined carried just over 18,473 passengers in May 2020 (a drop of 99.4% compared to May 2019). Dragon was later merged with the parent CX that in turn secured a massive HK$39bn in recapitalisation financing to help it scrape along. Cathay still announced a massive loss of US$1.42 billion for 2020 and in January 2021 the airline carried an average of just 1,000 passengers per day (another 99% drop over the previous January). To facilitate travel Cathay was offering free Covid-19 travel insurance to passengers.

Air France/KLM had lined up for a bailout by late February 2021 as well, a tale all too similar around the world.

The pressure on revenue is one reason why empty middle seats did not materialise in 2020 even on the world’s safest airline, Qantas, whose CEO Alan Joyce has argued strongly for a ‘social distancing exemption.’ He maintains 60cm of seat space has negligible impact on safety. Cabin air filtration systems and masks are deemed sufficiently effective. “Social distancing rules are supposed to be 1.5 metres. If you did that, you’d have very few people on an aircraft and the airfares would have to be very high,” said Joyce. Qantas removed most of its international seat inventory till end March 2021.

FlyersRights.org a consumer rights organisation has pressed the US to increase social distancing measures aloft by keeping middle seats empty (by late March 2021 only Delta was adhering to this policy). One novel suggestion by the group is that the US government purchase all the middle seats (to keep them empty and ensure a revenue base for airlines), drawing down on this ‘advance purchase’ at a later date for government travel.

By August 2020, Emirates had resumed flights to over 70 destinations linking UK and Europe (as well as Chicago and Toronto - with A380s in operation in North America) to Australia via Dubai. On 1 September 2020 Emirates restarted daily services to Bangkok. The airline offers 'global Covid-19 cover' to its passengers as well as the flexibility to reschedule interrupted trips within the next 24 months. The A380 is in operation to Guangzhou as well. The airline has adopted a minimal contact policy onboard with no in-flight magazines and only check-in baggage (with the exception of laptops, handbags and baby paraphernalia). There are temperature checks and gloves and masks are mandatory for passengers.

Qatar Airways mid-2020 was already touching points like Dhaka, Istanbul, Islamabad, Jakarta, Lahore, Rome, Sydney and Singapore with strong coverage of the US market. 

Emirates President Tim Clark holds a sanguine view on the flight path ahead and will institute no fleet cuts (unlike several airlines) with all A380 behemoths being retained. The airline expects to have its entire fleet back up in the air by summer 2022. Clark’s implied gamble on the emergence of vaccines followed by a resurgence in travel, may well be right.

Mid-August 2020 Hong Kong banned Air-India 'vande mataram' repatriation flights for two weeks following 11 imported cases that came off a 14 August flight from India. The Air-India ban was extended mid-September again as some passengers were still presenting positive results for Covid. The Hong Kong Government expressed doubts about the efficacy of Covid screening and tests at Indian airports and requested stringent protocols. on 20 April 2021 all flights to Hong Kong from India, Pakistan and the Philippines were banned for a period of two weeks.

Amidst the Covid pandemic with larger carriers cutting back sharply on services, on 14 July 2020 the new budget carrier Air Arabia from Abu Dhabi (www.airarabia.comi) launched its maiden service to Alexandria, Egypt.

Asian biggie Singapore Airlines reported a whopping S$142m loss third quarter 2020. By March 2021 SIA was cranking out flights to around 38 destinations (representing 20% of its pre-Covid levels). Vietnam Airlines dropped its Sydney services till at least April 2021 while opening up business and student flights to Japan and leisure flights from international cities like Seoul (25 September last year).

Virgin Atlantic relaunched the Hong Kong-London route with five scheduled flights late February 2021 cashing in on the Chinese New Year spike. The one-way fares at HK$3,920 from 20 February were not particularly cheap but came with the promise of extra baggage. The rates run till end April the airline said. 

CRUISES Princess Cruises has opened bookings for its 2022 World Cruise that runs 111 days starting from Fort Lauderdale 5 January. Or passengers can catch it at Los Angeles (19 January 2022). Early bookings by 30 November 2020 will earn US$1,000 in credit per stateroom confirmed. Also find cruises from Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney. Pandaw Cruises, which specialises in river runs, has put back India sailings for its 2021-2022 calendar. By August 2020 Crystal Cruises had launched its 'Crystal Confidence 2.0' offering maximum flexibility on bookings with a 90-day grace period for placement of any deposit. This is for all types of cruises - rivers, yachts and expeditions - for 2020 to 2023. There are flexible cancellation terms as well. Star Cruises cranks up Malaysia voyages from 13 May 2021 with two offerings – ‘Langkawi Escape’ and ‘Straits of Malacca’ – aboard the 1,600-passenger Star Pisces.

DESTINATIONS are switching on green lights at varying speeds. With the focus on a safe reopening, the European Union has put up a useful site to help travellers plan any EU travel with updated requirements from member countries. Europe's reopening is being watched with interest and may provide clues for later entrants. While the EU opened its borders to 14 countries 1 July 2020 (including Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) it still had a ban on travellers from the US (as well as Russia, Brazil and various high risk countries). Europeans were blocked from travel to the USA in early March 2020. The UK is still deemed part of the EU.

In Asia, for a general statistical overview, the cleanly presented Global Covid-19 Index (GCI) by a Malaysian company offers data-driven at-a-glance insights into recovery, restrictions and lockdowns while the World Health Organisation has its worldwide Covid-19 dashboard.

With destination Covid-19 travel restrictions in flux, here are some broad strokes for Asia.

AUSTRALIA remained closed to most foreign arrivals and transit traffic April 2021 save for returning Australian citizens, their families, and those having spent at least 14 days in New Zealand. All cruises have been stopped since 27 March 2020. More updates in the Australian Department of Health. A trans-Tasman travel bubble was put in place 6 April, 2021 to open a safe corridor between Australia and New Zealand.

Sri Lanka reopens in Covid times - train chugs through the hill country and tea estates

Sri Lanka is one of the first countries to reopen in Covid times - a train chugs through the cool verdant hills where nestle some of the country's more spectacular tea estates and retreats.   

CAMBODIA was closed to visitors April 2021 after an attempted comeback in late 2020 when visitors were required to stump up a US$3,000 deposit right off the bat. This was to cover any unforeseen costs that may arise for medical costs or quarantines. In addition to this rather dramatic hurdle entry requires a valid US$50,000 medical insurance along with a negative Covid-19 test result obtained within 72 hours of travel. But wait, there’s more. After this travellers needed to fork out US$100 for a Covid test and then spend a night at the test centre at US$30 per night with an additional $30 for meals and a US$5 charge for the bus transfer (each time). Sundry fees for laundry, ‘medical surveillance’ and security would all add up. Passengers testing positive will bring about the quarantine of all their fellow passengers on the flight and then undergo another set of levies for hospital stay and meals and tests that could total US$1,000 or more. All this to come out of that initial deposit.

CHINA stopped entry for foreigners with visas that were issued before 28 March, 2020. The same holds true for those using an APEC business travel card. By April 2021 certain visitors were being permitted if they had taken the China-made Sinovac vaccination.

Earlier, the Beijing Xinfadi wholesale food market outbreak mid June 2020 proved a damper but was brought under control as were later August spikes in Dalian and Xinjiang. Covid-19 appeared largely under control in China by March 2021 and with the vaccine rollout this situation is expected to remain stable. Diplomats and those undertaking essential trade or scientific work remain largely exempt from travel restrictions. Any eligible visitors or transit passengers must have WeChat installed on their mobile phones and they should have input all relevant health details prior to arrival. Domestic air travel in China reached almost normal levels late 2020 and has surged in holiday periods.

HONG KONG - Hong Kong and Singapore were once again in the hunt for a quarantine-free travel bubble for vaccinated passengers with a single flight in each direction carrying up to 200 passengers per day from 26 May 2021. This began to look shaky mid-May as a Covid spike hit Singapore. Travellers from Hong Kong will require to have had two shots of BioNTech (Pfizer) or Sinovac at least 14 days prior to travel. Singaporeans do not face the same restriction but passengers in either direction will have had to have been in either city for a duration of 14 days (not including any quarantine periods) before travel. All travellers will need to take two tests for Covid within 72 hours of departure and two more upon arrival at their own cost. This would amount to roughly HK$2,800 for a passenger from Hong Kong. An earlier date for November 2020 was pulled a day before launch on 21 November 2020 as a fourth wave in Hong Kong proved to be a spoiler.

Hong Kong is also exploring more open arrangements for vaccinated travellers with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand while opening the doors to HK residents returning from the UK (a country that had been completely isolated following the variant strain spread). The hotel quarantine period for travellers from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore was also brought down to 14 days.

The city had a full-blown fourth wave and last week of January 2021 several buildings in the dense neighbourhoods of Yaumatei, Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui were cordoned off for a lockdown while tests were carried out. Later the same was repeated in other blocks around the city with a zero-tolerance policy.

Since December 2020 Hong Kong has had a 21-day quarantine in place for all visitors apart from those from China. Visitors must stay at designated hotels and take designated transport. This has been eased to 14 days for travellers from Australia, NZ and Singapore. Travellers will need PCR Covid-free tests 72 hours prior to travel and fly on 'designated' carriers. Some Hong Kong travel advisory updates.

INDIA was undergoing a huge Covid-19 surge byApril/May 2021 with several places (including New Delhi) under lockdown and hospitals running out of space, oxygen, and equipment. With a ban on scheduled commercial air traffic to the country until at least end April 2021 (and this will likely be extended) - the country is setting its sights long-term on medical tourism in 2021 with wellness visas to lure in long-term yoga, spa, and health medicine aficionados. At the same time India was working to set up safe travel bubbles with countries like China, Japan and Singapore as well as a couple of Middle East countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Travel bubbles were set up earlier with both Seychelles and Uzbekistan. Masks are a must on all flights and non-compliance will result in offloading of the passenger.

Earlier, an optimistic Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced late August 2020 that domestic travel could reach normal levels by November during the Indian festival of Diwali. By late September the government had announced its 'Unlock4' guidelines to open up unfettered domestic travel and restrict Covid-19 tests for local travellers as well as state quarantine restrictions - this, despite India overtaking USA as a pandemic case leader globally. By April 2021 India was undergoing an enormous return of Covid-19 with hospitalisations and death rates spiking to new highs as the government scrambled to reassess things. Vaccinations are underway.

Look at the latest Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recommendations.

INDONESIA & BALI - Bali has launched its 'Sleeve Up' vaccination campaign and would like a 1 July opening for so-called 'green zones' in the tourist areas of Nusa Dua, Sanur and Ubud for travellers from countries with quarantine-free bubbles in place. Chief on the list are Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

By late August 2020 the country had still blocked all foreign leisure arrivals and visas had been suspended. Bali’s governor, in an abundance of caution, had pushed back domestic tourism too given the outbreaks in Java (and Jakarta and Surabaya in particular). Bali may only reopen to foreign tourists in late 2021 and vaccinations for hotel staff had begun by April 2021. Domestic travellers also face a huge amount of health checks and procedures, discouraging intra-island jaunts. Any eligible international arrival would have to undergo self-quarantine for two weeks. There will be a Covid-19 test upon arrival. There is also a long list of countries that should not have been visited over the previous 14 days.

JAPAN had again barred entry to all foreign non-resident visitors (late March 2021) with Covid on the rise, threatening the Olympic Games. By 30 December 2020 Japan had a list of 152 countries on a banned list for inbound travel. There is a lengthy list of 111 countries from Australia and Brazil to Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, India and South Africa that should not have featured on passenger travel itineraries within 14 days of arrival/transit. All current visas were earlier cancelled. When travel re-emerges, all visitors much produce negative Covid-19 test results. Japan and Laos meanwhile had established a safe travel corridor linking the two countries and travellers will be able to visit with a 14-day stay-at-home restriction and Covid tests. Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Taiwan were added shortly thereafter to the bubble list (with restrictions).

Short-term business travellers from Singapore were to be exempted from a 14-day self-quarantine after arrival in Japan but were required to limit their travel to residence and office with no use of public transportation and other random contact. On 21 September 2020 Vietnam Airlines had resumed flights to Japan for workers and students but not leisure trippers.

Wedding couple, Hoi An - Vietnam closes Danang and evacuates 80,000 tourists late July 2020

Wedding couple in red tunics pause for a photo on a bridge crossing the river at scenic old silk town Hoi An that is a hugely popular twin-stop for Danang-bound visitors / photo: Vijay Verghese

MACAU is closed to international traffic with a few exceptions. Inbound travel is permissible for Mainland Chinese travellers with Macau SAR visit permits and residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

MALAYSIA was initially closed to international visitors till 31 August, 2020 and by mid-September AirAsia was offering domestic fares as low as RM39 to spark a recovery in travel. With leisure tourism to the country effectively blocked, any traveller intending to visit for business or other official purposes needs a 'Letter of Undertaking and Indemnity'. With the late October 2020 Covid spike under control by April 2021 domestic travel was underway once again. Sarawak (Eastern Malaysia) dropped the Covid test requirement of Malaysian travellers March 2021 but maintained its 15-day quarantine.

MALDIVES opened the door to foreign travellers 15 July 2020 and by September 2020 all tourists could receive a 30-day visa if in possession of a negative PCR test certificate issued within 72 hours before arrival. In May 2021, alarmed at surges across India, travellers from South Asian countries were barred.

Earlier, mid-April the Maldives had scrapped the negative PCR test requirement for those with valid inoculation certificates at least two weeks prior to arrival. The archipelago ‘with naturally self-isolated islands’ had racked up a record 200,000 visitors by mid-March 2021 (still a 41% drop on the previous year), with the biggest tourist arrivals recorded from India (24%), Russia and the Ukraine. Travellers do not need to undergo any quarantine or produce test results. They are, however, screened at the airport with temperatures recorded. Procedures to watch. There was a small Covid spike post opening at nine luxury island resorts but there was no major community spread beyond the Male atolls.

NEPAL- bowing to immense pressure from the travel industry, opened the country for international visitors late 2020, but has seen few takers. A negative PCR test and a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine are required.

MYANMAR had resumed some domestic flights late December and was exploring international links but a Covid spike late in the year scuppered both. With new UK Covid strain emerging, all UK arrivals have been blocked as well. The savage February 2021 coup by the military has put a further damper on travel with international flights held back until 31 May 2021. By mid April 2020 the Pandaw river cruise company had pulled all sailings.

PHILIPPINES suspended all foreign arrivals 22 March 2021 to 21 April 2021 as it fought a Covid comeback. The white-sand resort island of Boracay reopened in October 2020 for domestic tourists while a planned safe travel corridor to South Korea had to be shelved till later in 2021. By November, travel companies were back in operation and domestic travel had commenced.

SEYCHELLES - As early as 1 June 2020, the Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles were open to arrivals from 19 countries including Thailand, Japan, China and New Zealand. Private charter flights were open from approved countries and commercial flights were being considered. By March 2021 a travel bubble was in place with India. Passengers are required to have obtained a negative Covid test prior to boarding. The reopening has been steady and on 25 March 2021 Seychelles dropped its 14-day quarantine for travellers. The islands are closed to residents of South Africa and those who have visited that country over the two weeks prior to their planned Seychelles holiday.

SINGAPORE while eyeing several 'low-risk' countries for travel relaxations - like China, Vietnam, Australia, Macau, Taiwan and Malaysia - reconfirmed the Hong Kong-Singapore quarantine-free bubble (earlier called off on 21 November 2020 one day before launch) for 26 May 2021 with one flight in each direction daily. The city has tightened controls and extended quarantines to 21 days for most countries as small outbreaks continued through May.

Earlier, the island state had cancelled green lane agreements with Germany, Malaysia and South Korea - for a 'reciprocal green lane' RGL for business travel and official work starting 1 February 2021. With Covid reasonably under control in the island state, Singapore is as yet accessible only for residents and citizens. The country has a ‘four-pronged’ approach to lift restrictions gradually through 2021.

The Air Travel Pass (ATP) programme started 8 September. A partial easing of the lockdown on the island was instituted 18 June.  From 17 June 2020 all eligible travellers (though not short-term visitors) from a small list of countries (Australia, Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, China, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam) who had not travelled out of these countries for two weeks prior to boarding would “no longer have to serve their SHN [stay-at-home notice] at dedicated SHN facilities.” Singapore citizens and long-term pass holders could serve out the 14-day period at their homes. All others were to be placed at dedicated SHN centres. All travellers needed to undergo a Covid-19 test a few days before their quarantine ended. Facility stay (S$2,000) and test costs (up to S$200) were to be passed on to the travellers.

It is likely Singaporeans may be unable to travel abroad freely until late 2021. Limited travel between Singapore and Malaysia (mainly to ease restrictions on work permit holders) has commenced. Additionally, short-term business travellers from Singapore to Japan could be exempt from a 14-day self-quarantine but will need to limit their travel to just between residence and office with no use of public transportation or other random contact. Meanwhile Japanese visitors to Singapore with the necessary clearance will likely need to wear an electronic tag for 14 days.

SOUTH KOREA had earlier reported a fresh outbreak with almost 300 cases in Seoul (largely linked to a right wing church group) Sunday 16 August 2020 as the government tried to move against religious groups that still congregated or were pushing for large in-person anti-government rallies. The country requires any eligible travellers to carry mobile phones, whose numbers will be verified at immigration. All passengers must undertake a two-week quarantine and those without a domestic residence will be quarantined at a government facility at a fee of W1,400,000. Do note that all visas issued before 5 April last year have been cancelled. Eligible inbound travellers are required to have taken a Covid test within 72 hours of their flight and this documentation/certificate is required in paper (screenshots are disallowed). Certificates must be in English or Korean.

SRI LANKA welcomes international visitors from 1 August, 2020, and the journey promises to be fairly trouble-free if less than serendipitous. Arrivals will need a Covid-free certificate issued within 72 hours of the boarding time and there will be a coronavirus test administered at Colombo airport too. This will be followed up by one more check within five days. Travellers need to commit to a minimum of five days in Sri Lanka booking only designated hotels. They cannot use public transport. For the intrepid wishing to stay over 10 days there will be yet another Covid-19 test for them during the course of their holiday. The visa fee has gone up to US$100. The country has been granted a 'Safe Travels' stamp for closely conforming to international norms, by the World Travel & Tourism Council.

TAIWAN remains closed to most foreign visitors but announced an easing on restrictions for business travellers from low-risk countries like Singapore and South Korea.

THAILAND loosened up controls for local residents as bars, spas and restaurants started opening again March 2021 yet by late April and May Covid was spiking in several areas including Bangkok, putting travel bubble talks at risk.

Last October 39 tourists from Shanghai arrived on a trial basis as the country explored controlled numbers from destinations deemed safe. A wristband tracker was mandatory for any persons allowed in on a Special Tourist Visa (in 90-day increments up to a maximum of 270 days). Any approved visitors also need to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

By March 2021 Thailand was testing golf-bubble tours with a group of 41 visitors from South Korea undergoing golf quarantine at a resort an hour north of Bangkok before transfer to Chiang Mai. The visitors will stay and play for two months and other visitors will be banned from the resort. Tourists from Indonesia too have been brought to Phuket on "villa bubbles". Six resorts are under consideration for Thailand golf bubbles in Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, Nakhon Nayok just north of the capital, and Petchaburi. Meanwhile the island of Phuket was to reopen to foreign visitors from 1 July 2021 with the usual safety formalities if at least 70% of the local population got vaccinated.

January 2021 all UK nationals were temporarily barred entry after some new strain cases emerged in the country.

Until late March last year, before the airports closed, foreign arrivals from ‘affected zones’ had to present a comprehensive insurance policy with at least US$100,000 of medical coverage (by September 2020 a consortium of 16 insurance companies had come together to offer foreign arrivals this insurance cover). A health declaration form had to be filled as well on a mobile phone through a designated app.

Meanwhile the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) has rolled out an innovative 'Ease up' deal with partner hotels offering free airport transfers, sightseeing and complimentary rooms for event managers. In mid August 2020 the TCEB had signed up 54 hotels and eight Destination Management Companies.

TURKEY had open borders from 1 July 2020 (though the country has had some spikes since then) bundled with a "Safe Tourism" programme that includes a 15-Euros insurance (offering 3,000 Euros of medical coverage) upon arrival. By March 2021 inbound travel was still open to those with a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to travel. Visitors must have an HES health tracking application to register on their mobile phones. Arrivals from the UK, South Africa, Brazil and Denmark had been suspended as of end March 2021.

UAE – Dubai still had open doors March 2021 with vigorous protocols in place at points of entry. Permissible travellers include foreign visitors (business and leisure) as well as residents and citizens of the UAE. Passengers will need negative Covid-19 certificates and may face testing upon arrival. International health insurance is "mandatory". As of April 2021, travellers who had passed through Nigeria or South Africa in the 14 days prior to arrival in the UAE would not be allowed entry.

VIETNAM (which has managed the outbreak fairly well) expected to have international flights back mid 2020 but had a setback with a community Covid cluster in Danang late July that resulted in the evacuation and repatriation of 80,000 tourists from the city. On 8 September VietJet resumed domestic flights to Danang. And on 22 September VietJet launched its Deluxe Class in-flight along with upgrades to its SkyBoss programme. Mid-April 2021 Covid was spiking again in various spots across the country necessitating a tightening up.

As of Mayl 2021 only foreign experts and diplomats were allowed entry with 21-day quarantines at their own cost. Select business travellers with local corporate sponsors had also gained entry. On safe corridors under discussion, the countries of origin for travellers would need to have been Covid-free for 30 days. This sort of link up may eliminate quarantines when travel returns later in 2021. The island of Phu Quoc in the far south of the country was earlier identified as one of the first areas to reopen for international arrivals. Protocols being discussed included swab tests at Phu Quoc Airport (this is an international facility) and results within 24 hours. If everyone on the flight had been cleared, travellers could then continue with their holiday uninterrupted. A 14-day quarantine awaits anyone with symptoms. The visa-free status of the island is under discussion.

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