Coronavirus and travel: How the much hyped 'travel bubbles' burst

Four months ago, the 'travel bubble' was the idea that could save tourism. Or, if not save it, at least keep the industry on life support until a vaccine was developed. In the UK, we got 'travel corridors', and all the subsequent chaos.

The concepts are broadly similar in ambition, if not in method. Travel corridors are rarely reciprocal arrangements, more a case of individual governments deciding which countries should be slapped with quarantine restrictions and which should be exempt.

Bubbles, on the other hand, would be agreed by a group of governments, creating enclosed networks of countries in which citizens could travel without the need to quarantine. Since access would be exclusive to members of each bubble, there would be little to no risk of infected travellers arriving from outside that network, and each country could therefore go about suppressing the virus while opening up a large section of the economy.

According to estimates by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism accounts for roughly 10 per cent of global GDP, and around the same proportion of jobs. In some countries the reliance on international travel is even greater, and so the discussion surrounding ways in which borders could reopen started fairly early in the pandemic.

Australia and New Zealand led the way with the Trans-Tasman bubble, proposed in May, which would allow free-flowing movement between the two neighbours, each of whom could rest easy in the knowledge that the other had the virus firmly under control.

There was further talk of welcoming other Oceanic nations such as Fiji into their bubble. Or they could seek to create a pan-global bubble with any country which – at the time – seemed to be on top of the pandemic. At one point, the proposal extended to Singapore, Greece, Israel, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica.

South Korea proposed a four-country arrangement with Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore, while Japan, which enacted one of the world's strictest travel bans at the pandemic's outset, made overtures to 10 other Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. 

So what went wrong?

In many cases, those countries with low infection rates were oblivious to the reality of Covid-19's spread. Australia is now contending with a second wave of infections.

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The case for the Trans-Tasman bubble was not helped by a quarantine scandal in New Zealand back in June, when two UK travellers were given permission to leave quarantine after just six days on compassionate grounds, only for them to later test positive (but not before coming into contact with more than 300 people). 

Politicians on both sides of the Tasman Sea are still hopeful that a travel bubble can be achieved, although with New Zealand gearing up for a general election, it is unlikely to be realised before the end of the year.

Australia's Minister for Pacific, Alex Hawke, said: "The Trans-Tasman bubble's on pause for a little bit, but as soon as we are able to get policy commitment to it, we want to be administratively ready. New Zealand has indicated that there will be a short pause on that but they are committed to the outcome."

The various Asian bubbles have stalled too, with Japan, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea all having experienced a steep rise in coronavirus infections in the last couple of months.

"I see no signal from the government that the country will open this year," said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya of Thailand's Tourism Authority.

"The Christmas period, usually the high season, is in jeopardy and I'm looking horribly even to Chinese New Year, in February, which is an iffy proposition at best now. Unfortunately, this is not a rosy picture."

More success has been had in Europe. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia banded together to create a Baltic bubble back in May, swiftly followed by a Nordic bubble encompassing Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, and another between Hungary and Slovakia.

Tallinn was one of the first cities in Europe to reopen after lockdown.

Tallinn was one of the first cities in Europe to reopen after lockdown. Photo: iStock

Then the EU stepped in with plans to create a EU-wide travel bubble as borders began to reopen in July, but the idea quickly unravelled. Travel corridors opened up as individual nations revised their quarantine rules, and holidaymakers from around Europe began to converge on tourism hotspots.

Spain swiftly saw infection rates spike, and soon found itself back on the quarantine lists of the UK, France and Germany, while Greece, once touted as a potential travel partner for Australia and New Zealand, has also been struck with whole or partial travel restrictions after reported spikes on some of its islands.

The EU is now working on a standardised 'traffic light' system to be applied across the whole of Europe, with the notion of regulating movement between low-risk and high-risk areas, and the general feeling seems to be that the time for smaller, regional travel bubbles has passed. 

With cases continuing to rise and fall, governments are starting to realise that they now cannot safely strike up a travel arrangement with another country in the full knowledge that the infection rate there is fully under control. Instead we are stuck, for the moment, with an ever-evolving picture – possibly the worst thing for consumer confidence and for tourism businesses trying to survive. 

The Telegraph, London

See also: The countries open to Australian tourists (but we're not allowed to go)

See also: Why the trans-Tasman bubble won't happen until 2021

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