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Hong Kong-Singapore 'travel bubble' grounded over new COVID fears

Spike in Chinese territory stalls plan for two weeks before Sunday launch

A Singapore Airlines plane undergoes maintenance at Changi Airport: The airline is one of the designated carriers for the "air travel bubble" with Hong Kong.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Hong Kong and Singapore have delayed the planned launch of an "air travel bubble" for two weeks, just hours after saying it would go ahead on Sunday, as the former faces a modest but unsettling jump in coronavirus cases.

The two Asian economic hubs had billed the program as Asia's first completely quarantine-free arrangement for any type of travel, including leisure. But Hong Kong on Friday reported 26 new cases -- 21 of them local transmissions. These numbers are low by global standards but relatively high for the city, prompting Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan to warn Hong Kong has "probably entered into a new wave of cases." She called the situation "severe."

On Saturday, Singapore's aviation authority initially said the bubble would start as scheduled with extra precautions. Later in the day, however, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung announced he had agreed with Hong Kong Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Edward Yau to postpone it.

There will be plenty of upset travelers: Tickets were already sold out on many dates through early December, according to the booking websites of Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, which were designated to handle the eligible flights.

"I can fully understand the disappointment and frustration of travelers who have planned their trips," Ong posted online. "But we think it is better to defer from a public health standpoint. The airlines will be contacting the travelers individually."

The bubble was to begin with one flight a day in each direction, operated by either of the two airlines and carrying up to 200 passengers each. From Dec. 7, the schedule was to increase to two daily flights.

The setback is yet another reminder of how difficult it is to revive economic activity while protecting public health -- a challenge Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and others are all confronting head-on as their case numbers surge. If and when they do eventually launch their bubble, Singapore and Hong Kong hope to establish a successful model for resuscitating the battered international tourism industry even before a vaccine is readily available.

Asia has seen a number of travel corridors open up over the course of the pandemic, but these are generally geared to essential business trips. A joint promotion video released by Hong Kong's and Singapore's tourism authorities showed off each destination's attractions -- from landmarks to street food. But unlike your garden variety travel video, they also detailed hygiene and safe distancing measures in restaurants, hotels and public spaces, with subtitles saying, "We are ready to welcome you."

The bubble is "a step in the right direction to reboot international travel in the region," International Air Transport Association officials said in a statement before the decision. "We look forward to seeing Hong Kong and Singapore expand this arrangement with other destinations, and for other governments to adopt a similar approach."

If the plan does get off the ground, business travelers are expected to take advantage of it, too. Last year, Singapore had roughly 489,000 visitor arrivals from Hong Kong, while Hong Kong received around 453,000 travelers from the city-state.

Most governments would be envious of Singapore's and Hong Kong's virus numbers, despite the latter's renewed concerns. COVID-19 is making a fierce comeback, with global daily cases topping 600,000 this month. In Europe, countries such as France have entered renewed lockdowns, while Japan set a new daily record of over 2,000 infections this week, prompting the Tokyo government to issue an alert about dining and gatherings.

Also this week, South Korea reported its highest daily numbers in three months. Meanwhile, Singapore logged five cases on Saturday.

Many countries are still hesitant to reopen their borders, including China. Australia and New Zealand have had discussions on a potential quarantine-free travel bubble, but the latter's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, remains cautious about accepting visitors from the neighbor, according to local reports.

It was not as if Singapore and Hong Kong were throwing caution to the wind.

Under their plan, travel bubble users would be required to take a pre-departure PCR test within 72 hours before flying, and receive a negative result. They would also have to comply with the prevailing safety measures in both cities, such as rules on face masks and limits on large gatherings. In Singapore, foreign travelers would have to download the government's virus tracing app and keep it activated during their stay.

The two governments had already said they would suspend the bubble for two weeks "if the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked COVID-19 cases is more than five in either Singapore or Hong Kong."

Ong on Saturday said the postponement is a "sober reminder that the COVID-19 virus is still with us, and even as we fight to regain our normal lives, the journey will be full of ups and downs."

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