TOKYO/SINGAPORE -- Corporate Asia is spearheading a cautious opening of regional travel after a series of governments prioritized business trips to try to reboot economic activity amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Hong Kong's decision to ease travel for directors of some 480 listed companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is the latest example. The city on Monday said two executives from these companies will be exempt from Hong Kong's mandatory quarantine for one trip per month from mainland China for "essential business activities," including board meetings and seeing clients.
Singapore has also opened up a channel with Beijing for corporate employees to travel to six Chinese cities, along the lines of a scheme used by South Korea, which was able to dispatch a large delegation from Samsung Electronics last month. Taiwan has also started to draft measures to ease business travel for foreigners, while Japan is expected to put business travelers at the head of the line when it relaxes curbs on visits by foreigners.
Businesses are welcoming the fact that governments are prioritizing their interests as they create "travel bubbles." They are also pressing for additional relaxations.
"Singapore companies are hoping that more Chinese cities will be added to the list soon," said Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation. "Reinstating more flight routes between Singapore and China and at affordable rates will allow more flexibility for businesses to resume their overseas business operations."
The measures are particularly critical for small, open economies such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which rely heavily on their role as regional corporate crossroads to foment business activity.
For governments, easing restrictions for business travelers provides a relatively controllable way to ease into more widely opening their borders.
Any easing for business is still likely to be gradual and partial. In the case of Hong Kong, travelers to mainland China will still be subject to a 14-day compulsory quarantine requirement imposed by Chinese authorities. The Hong Kong government is working with Beijing to remove this requirement.
"Even though quarantine is exempt in Hong Kong, we will need to be quarantined on the mainland when we return," said Gui Sheng Yue, chief executive officer and executive director at Geely Automobile Holdings, a Hong Kong-listed arm of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.
Singaporean companies have started applying for "fast lane" essential travel to six cities, including Shanghai and Tianjin. Employees can secure a quarantine waiver if they test negative for the virus and follow certain rules. Passengers who win government approval must pay for and pass the coronavirus test twice, before departure and after landing. The same scheme works for Chinese companies sending employees to Singapore.
Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, which has a membership of nearly 10,000 small businesses, said China is key for members.
"It is very important we start this air traffic bubble," he said. "China is an important market -- businesses procure from China, invest in China, have staff in China, so there is a need to travel there."
But Wee pointed out that even under the fast-lane arrangement, business travelers from Singapore will nevertheless be issued with a 14-day stay-at-home mandate after returning from China.
South Korea launched its fast-track program with China on May 1, with large companies already taking advantage of it. Samsung said about 300 employees visited China on May 22 by using the fast-track program. Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong used it to visit memory chip production lines in Xian and meet with Chinese Communist Party leaders in Shaanxi Province.
South Korean business people are allowed to enter 10 cities and provinces in China by providing a medical document that shows a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours of departure, and by taking another test in China upon arrival. Chinese businesspeople are following the same procedure.
China is thus gaining back business confidence overseas. While most indoor business events remain closed and are carried out online, the China International Import Expo, slated for November, will be held as scheduled.
Japan will begin talks this month at the earliest with Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand in attempts to allow its business travelers to bypass two-week quarantine requirements as soon as this summer.
"The health of employees, clients and all stakeholders is the biggest priority," a representative of a Japanese trading house said. "But we will examine thoroughly the scheme once established and the situations in the countries regarding whether to restart cross-border business travel."
Vietnam on Tuesday started to list safe zones in an effort to reopen international aviation.
Yuichi Yamada, chief researcher at the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation, a think tank, said it is logical to reconnect trusted countries and regions "and establish a framework to check if passengers have not engaged in activities with high infection risks before travel."
He pointed out that businesses were aware they could suffer reputational damage if they are associated with the spread of the virus through travel. "Executives are conscious that their actions may trigger a backlash [for their company]," so a fast-lane framework for business travelers worked well and could help give companies the confidence to ask employees to travel, he argued.
Yamada suggested such arrangements could be a precursor to a greater degree of segmentation of travelers in the future, perhaps prioritizing tourists on package trips over individual travelers.
The measures are expected to help airlines do more business in China again. The Civil Aviation Administration of China on Monday started to allow all airlines to increase the number of international flights involving China to a maximum of two per week if no passengers on their flights test positive for three consecutive weeks.
If five passengers or more on one flight test positive for the coronavirus upon arrival, the CAAC would bar the airline from providing services for a week, and in cases involving 10 passengers for four weeks, it said.
Taiwan is considering granting entry only if foreign business travelers present a negative polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test result taken within three days before their travel. They would also have to undergo at least five days of quarantine upon arrival, then take another PCR test before leaving quarantine. The policy will be finalized next week at the earliest.
Indonesia currently allows international travel for medical aid workers and expats working on strategic national projects, including toll roads and power plants, with a requirement to show a negative PCR test result upon arrival, and a self quarantine for 14 days.
Airlines remain circumspect about resuming flights that would allow a big uptick in business travel.
"Easing travel restrictions is all very well," the Centre for Aviation, CAPA, said in a report earlier this month, "but it won't mean much without increasing air links between countries. Air services have been reduced to bare bones, and airlines will need to be confident of demand before they reactivate aircraft and ramp up international flights."
Additional reporting by Kim Jaewon in Seoul, Nikki Sun in Hong Kong, CK Tan in Shanghai, Shotaro Tani in Jakarta, Kim Dung Tong in Ho Chi Minh City and Lauly Li in Taipei.