Notably, the latest guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US have cleared those fully vaccinated to travel internationally with no quarantine requirements upon returning to the country. Meanwhile, the UK is proposing a traffic light system for the resumption of non-essential international travel, whereby travellers arriving from destinations in the green list will not be subjected to quarantine requirements.
But for many Asian economies, the pace of the return from visitors from mainland China will be particularly important. However, a “zero-tolerance policy” for COVID-19 cases suggests mainland China may be slow in reopening its borders. A large domestic tourism market also tilts the balance towards erring on the side of caution when it comes to normalising mass international tourism flows quickly. Notably, while China has launched a digital vaccine passport, it remains unclear if the current requirement for a 14-day quarantine for international arrivals will be waived.
In lieu of a broad reopening, “travel bubble” agreements, whereby economies open their borders to each other with no quarantine measures, offer another route for non-essential international travel to resume. The most notable example is the Trans-Tasman travel bubble that will allow for leisure and quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand.
Although attempts to establish travel bubbles in Asia failed to take off in 2020, there has been renewed momentum on this front more recently. For instance, Taiwan and Palau launched on 1 April quarantine-free travel arrangements that have been billed as Asia’s first travel bubble. Taiwan is also reportedly in talks with Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam about establishing similar arrangements.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Singapore governments are finalising details of a potential restart to their travel bubble, which was suspended at the eleventh hour in November 2020 following a virus resurgence in Hong Kong. The Australian and Singapore governments also appear close to agreeing on a bilateral quarantine-free travel bubble.
As travel bubbles come into play, economies that manage to implement arrangements with their key sources of tourist arrivals are likely to recover faster. For Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam, securing a travel bubble with mainland China – their top source of foreign visitors – will be important to their tourism sector recovery prospects. For Malaysia, the reopening of borders with Singapore will be crucial, given that the latter accounts for 39 per cent of its foreign visitors.