(ATF) A pioneering flight travel bubble arrangement has been signed between Hong Kong and Singapore, restoring connections between the Asian entrepots that had been grounded to halt following the spread of coronavirus.
In what they two cities called a groundbreaking first, passengers will have to undergo a swab test for the virus before boarding. If successful the scheme may be extended, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said.
“We are doing this initially on a bilateral basis,” Yau told reporters. “We have approached or have been approached altogether by 11 countries to start bilateral arrangements to revive travelling.
“In the process, Singapore and Hong Kong are among the first partners that are able to lock in a mutually agreeable arrangement, whereby after fulfilling certain conditions, essentially mutually recognised COVID-19 tests and bubble flights with no transit passengers coming in ensured, travellers are allowed to come or go under this arrangement.”
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The arrangement will be closely watched the world over as airport runways lie dormant and planes remain shuttered in hangars amid a sharp downturn in international travel during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of flights worldwide have been cancelled and tens of thousands of staff and air crew have been laid off as the declining demand threatens airlines with bankruptcy.
The first flights, expected within weeks, will be the first open to foreigners since Hong Kong closed its airport to non-domestic travellers from March. The former British colony has been comparatively successful in keeping the virus from its shores. So far just 5,000 cases have been reported and 105 deaths. Both cities were heavily affected by SARS, another deadly coronavirus outbreak, in 2003.
Travellers won’t be forced to go into quarantine, unlike arrangements in other countries, according to the deal announced by both cities’ governments. Neither will passengers be limited by their purpose for travelling.
Almost half a million people arrived in Hong Kong from the Lion City last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB).
“The protocol prepares the tourism-related sectors to welcome visitors back while bolstering visitors’ confidence in travelling to Hong Kong,” said HKTB chairman Y K Pang.
Industry groups welcomed the announcement and said they hoped similar bubbles would be formed.
Jason Wong, Hong Kong's Travel Industry Council, said the arrangement — though welcomed – wouldn't save the city's tourism industry that has been largely paralysed by the epidemic.
"We would most love to have similar schemes with destinations like Japan, Thailand and South Korea," Wong said.
"Hopefully having the first one would help Hong Kong to convince more partners."
Public health experts cautiously welcomed the Singapore Hong Kong travel bubble but cautioned corridors only worked for those places that have got a handle on the disease.
- Additional reporting by AFP