What we can learn from the world’s first travel bubbles

FILE PHOTO: A passenger arrives from New Zealand after the Trans-Tasman travel bubble opened overnight, following an extended border closure due to the coronavirus disease…
FILE PHOTO: A passenger arrives from New Zealand after the Trans-Tasman travel bubble opened overnight, following an extended border closure due to the coronavirus disease…
Image: Reuters/Loren Elliott
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The Asia-Pacific region boasts some of the most successful pandemic stories, with places like Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia bringing local new cases down to zero or single digits. Now, this exclusive club of Covid-19 champions is launching long-awaited travel bubbles, offering a glimpse of what post-pandemic international travel will look like as the world lines up for vaccines. 

After several delays, a relatively unrestricted bubble is set to launch on Monday (April 19) between two of the world’s most Covid-19 cautious countries, Australia and New Zealand. According to the New Zealand tourism department, it won’t involve mandatory testing, proof of vaccination, or quarantines, but passengers must wear masks during their flights and agree to be tracked via app for contact tracing purposes, and those with cold or flu symptoms can’t travel. Officials on both sides hope to recoup some part of their pre-Covid travel—in 2019, an estimated 1.5 million Australian tourists vacationed in New Zealand and roughly the same number of New Zealanders followed suit in Australia.

But political and business leaders keen to help cross-border travel resume are constantly reminded that a bubble is exactly that—a fragile structure that can pop at any moment.

This month Taiwan and Palau embarked on what they called Asia’s first quarantine-free travel bubble, but two weeks in, Taiwan’s flagship carrier China Airlines announced that flights would be suspended for the rest of the month. The halt came after the number of tourists plummeted from around 100 on the inaugural April 1 flight to only two bookings, according to a local travel industry association, on a now-canceled April 17 flight.

“The travel bubble is mainly a commercial initiative that is regulated freely by the market supply and demands,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou told Quartz.

To clarify, a “bubble” (or “air bridge” or “sterile corridor” depending on a country’s preferred nomenclature), requires a two-way agreement easing Covid-19 travel restrictions, and refers to travel between places where Covid-19 is low or nonexistent. Some countries have already extended one-way relaxations to select foreign nationals. In October, Australia allowed quarantine-free entry for New Zealanders, but the latter held off on reciprocating.

Bubbles are far more helpful toward restarting travel than one-way steps, because while the latter might work just fine for a citizen trying to return home and stay put, leisure international travel requires both being able to leave and return just as easily.

The fate of the Taiwan-Palau corridor is a reminder of how necessary it is for commercial considerations to prevail. The bubble with Palau, a staunch member of Taiwan’s dwindling club of diplomatic allies, involves a pre-and post-boarding checklist that is both extensive and expensive, turning the prospect of a weekend getaway into a logistical nightmare. Travelers going to Palau must undergo Covid-19 tests and show that they haven’t traveled anywhere else overseas in the last six months before boarding. Tourists also have to purchase $2,000 to $3,000-plus travel packages, stay within chaperoned tour groups, avoid crowds and local residents, dine in designated restaurants, lodge in selected hotels and only take pre-arranged transportation.

After that, another slew of hospital Covid tests and two additional weeks of self-health management await them once back in Taiwan. That’s a lot of red tape for a nonessential trip to a destination that’s in any case seen Taiwan visitors decline over the past decade.

Which is why the Australian-New Zealand bubble looks to be more promising. If it does take off as planned, it’ll be an experiment substantially different to the Taiwan-Palau bubble—until there’s an outbreak of course. If there’s a severe outbreak in either country, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warns, conditions could quickly change (pdf), coining the term “flyer beware” in a bid to temper expectations for pandemic-weary travelers. For this reason, a recent Covid flare-up centering around a hotel in Auckland has raised jitters it could burst the forthcoming New Zealand-Australia travel bubble even before it begins.

Still, compared to last year, progress is being made. Taiwan’s already tweaking the bubble with Palau, announcing yesterday it would no longer bar returning travelers from public transport during their self-monitoring period in an effort to encourage more tourists to go to Palau.

Even if some travel bubbles are off to a sputtered start, the fact that they’re happening at all is hopeful. Last year, New Zealand committed to a bubble in August with the Cook Islands that has yet to materialize. Fiji also discussed a “Bula bubble” with New Zealand and Australia that failed (video) to launch. One of the most hyped, a Hong Kong-Singapore bubble, was set to began in November, but the two governments called it quits a day ahead of the scheduled start after a sudden spike in Hong Kong’s cases.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand launches on a Sunday, instead of a Monday.