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Singapore and China set strict rules for airtight 'travel bubble'

Business flyers will need visas, virus tests, contact tracing apps and more

SINGAPORE -- Singapore on Wednesday offered a detailed explanation of how its new "travel bubble" with China will work, as the city-state moves carefully to reopen its borders amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Trips could resume in the coming two weeks, but only under a strict set of criteria.

Last week, Singapore and China agreed to set up a system to allow reciprocal travel for essential business and official purposes, starting with six Chinese provinces and municipalities: Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

The deal is that travelers from either country will have to apply for visas in advance -- a break with Singapore's visa-free arrangement for short-term visits to China before COVID-19 swept the globe. Before departing, passengers will also have to undergo coronavirus testing, followed by another test upon arrival. All tests will be at their own cost.

"This is part of Singapore's gradual reopening of our borders for Singaporeans and residents to conduct essential activities overseas and to allow safe travel for foreigners entering Singapore in limited numbers, with the necessary safeguards in place to ensure public health considerations are addressed," the city-state's foreign affairs and trade ministries said in a statement issued Wednesday evening.

The move comes as Singapore and countries across the Asia-Pacific region look to ease pressure on their economies by establishing travel bubbles -- also known as "green lanes" or "fast lanes" -- with minimal or no quarantine periods. Singapore is in talks with New Zealand, South Korea and Malaysia on similar arrangements. Discussions with other countries that share major trading links with the city-state are believed to be ongoing, including destinations outside Asia, such as in Europe.

China, meanwhile, has already set up a business travel corridor with South Korea.

Restarting travel is especially pressing for Singapore, since its economy depends on connections with the rest of the world to thrive. Trade amounts to three times the tiny state's gross domestic product. Merchandise trade with mainland China last year hit 137.3 billion Singapore dollars ($98.2 billion) -- the most of any partner -- and scores of Singaporean companies have business interests there.

Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation, noted that SBF surveys have shown that over 80% of companies consider travel bans "the top challenge for their overseas business operations."

"With China already progressively emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and Singapore embarking on a three-phased approach to resume economic and social activities safely, the launch of the 'fast lane' arrangement is a positive start for both countries to resume business operations, while facilitating the connectivity of people and supply chains," Ho said. "This will contribute to the revitalization of our economies."

Nevertheless, organizing business trips is likely to be a chore for the foreseeable future.

An empty baggage collection area at Changi Airport: Experts say air hubs will need to take health precautions as travel picks up again.

A quota will be imposed to restrict the flow of travelers. The authorities did not reveal the specific number on Wednesday, and they said it will be subject to review over time.

Businesses will have to clear several administrative checks. Beyond the required visas, travelers will need a sponsor organization at their destination. They will have to submit an itinerary as well -- and follow it closely -- while using the mobile contact tracing systems deployed in the host country.

"Travellers must adhere to a controlled itinerary that is supervised by the host company or government agency for the first 14 days," the ministries said in their statement. "The traveller may not use public transportation for this purpose, with the exception of private hire cars/taxis or cohorted company transport."

Officials aim to gradually expand the number of Chinese destinations eligible for the program. "Singapore companies are hoping that more Chinese cities will be added to the list soon," the SBF's Ho said.

Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore began allowing travelers to transit through the city-state's Changi Airport on Tuesday. Subject to regulatory approval, Singapore Airlines said it intends to soon reinstate selected routes.

"Singapore Airlines prudently increases its capacity to meet the demand for international air travel," an airline spokesperson told the Nikkei Asian Review. "With travel restrictions being gradually relaxed in some countries, SIA sees a potential increase in demand for services."

The carrier said it hopes to restart services to Adelaide, Amsterdam, Auckland, Barcelona, Brisbane, Cebu, Christchurch, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Medan, Melbourne and Osaka this month and next. It also aims to increase the frequency of existing services to Sydney and Kuala Lumpur.

Experts note, however, that increased air travel will create complications not only for immigration and health authorities but also airports themselves.

Desmond Lian, head of aviation for the Asia-Pacific at security screening technology provider Smiths Detection, said the onus will be on air hubs to minimize crowds and bottlenecks to ensure safe distancing.

"As we witness the revival of air travel, it is certain that the world will not immediately return to the pre-COVID-19 status quo of free and unfettered movement," Lian told Nikkei. Security screening measures, he added, may have to be redesigned to minimize physical contact.

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