Once seen as the yellow brick road to resuming international tourism, “travel bubbles” are popping under the weight of the region’s relentless waves of coronavirus outbreaks.
Renewed lockdowns in Thailand, Tokyo and Australia brought on by the faster-spreading delta variant are closing air-travel corridors that allow travel between countries without need for quarantine before they even fully open.
The much-ballyhooed travel link between Singapore and Hong Kong never really got =underway. Talks between Sinagpore and Australia have stalled by Australia and New Zeland’s quarantine-free corridor has been closed as often as it has been open.
With delusional governments in Thailand, Australia and elsewhere clinging foolishly to “zero Covid” strategy, the failure of even bilateral, quarantine-free travel shows how difficult it will be for Asia to return to normal.
Governments who continue to try to stamp out Covid-19 no matter the economic cost and their reliance on strict movement controls stands in stark contrast to Europe and the U.S., which are returning to pre-pandemic normal, due largely to higher rates of vaccination.
Gary Bowerman, director of travel and tourism research firm Check-in Asia, travel is complicated by the large disparity between health and border-control regulations across Asia. No one is working together, due to a lack of trust between Asian governments about managing the pandemic, he said.
Because countries like Thailand failed to procure sufficient amounts of Covid-19 vaccines, lockdowns are the only weapons left to their leaders, despite more than a year of experience that broad, economy-crippling shutdowns do more harm than good.
As a result, air travel in Asia isn’t expected to recover until July next year. Flight-tracking firm OAG thinks it will be summer 2023 before Asia gets its act together.
Even if Asia can subdue the pandemic to allow Asia-Pacific travel to resume, a new issue is rearing iits head: Which vaccines will be accepted by which countries?
Thailand, among others, has leaned heavily on Chinese-made vaccines that never were proven to be highly effective and, in the face of the delta variant, increasingly are seen as near-useless. It’s possible that, to travel in the region, travelers will have to have been inoculated with more-proven vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc., Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc. or Johnson & Johnson Corp.
Bryan Foong, chief strategy officer at Malaysia Airlines, said countries need to set a uniform standard that airlines can follow.
AirAsia Group Bhd. CEO Tony Fernandes thinks some countries may simply be off limits to many travelers for years to come, pointing a finger at Australia, which he called a “hermit kingdom” during a recent webinar.
Travel to countries that erect ridiculous barriers to entry, such as Thailand’s rules for fully vaccinated travelers for three prepaid Covid-19 tests and US$100,000 in health insurance may simply make it too painful for tourists to take.