Singapore-HK air travel bubble could see pent-up demand if it matches holiday season

SINGAPORE'S proposed air travel bubble (ATB) with Hong Kong could spark keen interest from travellers, especially if takes off in time for the year-end holidays, travel agencies say.

Singapore and Hong Kong announced on Thursday that they have reached an in-principle agreement to set up a bilateral ATB - likely the first in Asia - to revive air travel between the two aviation hubs in a safe manner. This will enable travel without quarantine, stay-home-notice (SHN) requirements or a controlled itinerary.

Speaking to the media on Thursday, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said that he hoped to see the ATB kick off in a matter of weeks. He highlighted that both cities have low incidence of Covid-19 cases, and have implemented strong mechanisms to control the pandemic, giving Singapore and Hong Kong the confidence to progressively open their borders to each other.

Mr Ong added: "Both Hong Kong and Singapore are regional, even global, aviation hubs. For the two of us to be able to control the pandemic and come together to discuss and establish this air travel bubble, hopefully this sets a model for us to forge more of such relationships and partnerships."

While there will be no restrictions on travel purpose, travellers would have had to have been in either Hong Kong or Singapore for a 14-day period before they make the journey. Travellers would also need to take mutually recognised swab tests and produce a negative result.

In addition, there will be a quota on the number of travellers that can travel between Singapore and Hong Kong under the ATB but as operations stabilise, quotas may be increased. Travellers under the ATB will be limited to dedicated flights, so that there is no mixing with transit passengers or non-ATB passengers.

However, Mr Ong cautioned that the ATB could be adjusted downwards or suspended if there is a spike in cases. "We want to do things progressively, cautiously, steadily, safely but we have to open up our aviation sector. We have to try. The aviation hub concerns the entire economy... hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake," he added.

Hong Kong - which has emerged from a third wave of the pandemic - could face a fourth wave soon, health experts have warned, due to factors such as untraceable cases in the community and the upcoming flu season.

Travel agencies and industry observers BT spoke to say there could be strong demand from both leisure and business travellers once the bubble is launched. Last year, over 450,000 visitors from Singapore made their way to Hong Kong.

Marcus Yong, Klook's vice-president of marketing, reckons people will be eager to travel again after months of pent-up demand, evidenced by the flurry of sales for cruises to nowhere and staycations.

"We believe that Singaporeans and Hong Kongers will be cautious, with a slow but sure rebound on the cards," he said.

Ang Choo Pin, managing director (Asia) for Expedia Group, said: "Hong Kong has consistently remained one of the top three destinations among Singaporean travellers for the last three years during the year-end period. In the last 30 days, Expedia search data has increased among the North Asia markets, with Hong Kong contributing 2-5 per cent of that." He added that this indicates a strong appetite and eagerness among its consumers to take to the skies again.

Hong Kong's "food, shopping and theme parks such as Hong Kong Disneyland will attract crowds" for the year-end festive season, said director of public relations for Dynasty Travel, Alicia Seah, adding however that it remains to be seen what pricing for a trip would look like.

Travel agency Chan Brothers is optimistic that Hong Kong will be a popular short getaway for the year-end holidays, while a spokesperson for described the proposed ATB as a "solid opportunity" for the revitalisation of travel and tourism.

Meanwhile, Terence Fan, assistant professor at Singapore Management University, sees the ATB as a positive not just for the aviation industry but also others which rely on tourist flows such as hotels, retailers and tourist attractions.

Getting a travel bubble going is important for Singapore, which isn't receiving huge flows of transfer traffic, said Prof Fan, whereas Hong Kong has transfer traffic to and from China to fall back on.

Singapore has already unilaterally eased border restrictions for select countries: Australia (with the exception of the state of Victoria), Brunei, New Zealand and Vietnam. But these countries have yet to relax restrictions for travellers departing from Singapore.

"Other countries are watching closely. If we can get this going, and it is workable, then I think more will join. We have to be careful about how to implement this," said Prof Fan.

As news of the ATB broke, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) urged other governments in Asia to adopt a similar approach: replacing quarantine with testing in order to restore travel.

"Replacing quarantine measures with Covid-19 testing will help in re-opening borders, restoring the connectivity that jobs and economic activity depends on, and giving passengers greater confidence to travel," said Conrad Clifford, Iata's regional vice-president for Asia Pacific.

Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines (SIA) welcomed the effort to open up the Singapore air hub, highlighting that the travel bubble would help in the airline's recovery strategy. "SIA will continue to be nimble and flexible in adding capacity to meet the growing demand for air travel," a spokesperson for the airline said. At present, the SIA is operating one daily flight to Hong Kong, down from about seven pre-pandemic.

And in a press statement, Hong Kong's Tourism Board said it plans to roll out a promotional campaign dubbed "Open House Hong Kong" to attract inbound visitors once the launch date for the ATB is firmed up, with special offers for flights and accomodation.