There’s been much talk of air travel bubbles recently, spurred by Singapore’s low case numbers and vaccine rollout. But interestingly enough, our first overseas travel bubble might be exactly that: over seas.
On Saturday, Channel NewsAsia reported that the Indonesian authorities are mulling a “safe travel corridor” between Singapore, Batam and Bintan, which could start as early as 21 April. Singapore is connected to the two islands by ferry, each of them about an hour’s voyage away.
While I have major doubts as to whether April is a realistic timeline, it’s good to have something to look forward to nonetheless.
How would the bubble work?
The proposed travel bubble would be made possible by a trifecta of measures:
- a COVID-19 vaccination drive for workers in the tourism industry
- testing on arrival
- ringfencing the tourism areas
Indonesia’s tourism minister revealed that 1,500 tourism workers in Batam and 2,000 in Bintan received their vaccinations on Saturday, with a target of 30,000 to be met before the safe travel corridor could open. Indonesia is currently using vaccines from Sinovac as part of its nationwide vaccine rollout.
With the bubble in place, tourists from Singapore could enter the two islands without quarantine, subject to a negative pre-departure PCR test and a further test called GeNose upon arrival.
Those who dislike the PCR swab test will be pleased to know that GeNose is far less invasive. This indigenously-developed system analyzes breath samples to detect COVID-19, with a reported sensitivity of 89-92%. Subjects simply exhale into a plastic sample collection bag, without the need for swabbing or blood collection.
Test results are available in just two minutes, which means minimal inconvenience to arriving passengers (the Hong Kong travel bubble, in contrast, would have used saliva collection involving a wait of 6-8 hours!).
Obviously, for the travel bubble to gain any sort of traction, returning passengers from Batam/Bintan would need to be exempt from any SHN requirement in Singapore (which currently stands at 14 days in a dedicated facility for arrivals from Indonesia). There’s no official word on that, but it’s more or less a given should the bubble proceed.
Finally, there would need to be some sort of physical ringfencing of the Bintan/Batam tourist areas to minimize the chances of imported cases from outside the bubble. That said, I simply can’t imagine the Indonesian authorities confining visitors to their resorts because that’s just quarantine by another name. Moreover it’s in their interest for tourists to be out and about spending money and supporting the local economy.
How realistic is 21 April?
If there’s one thing that struck me about this plan, it’s how soon the proposed start date is. 21 April is less than a month away, and it seems like the local authorities are determined to beat Bali (proposed reopening: June) to the punch.
I reached out to a contact from a hotel in Bintan, who told me that 21 April was more of a “suggested roadmap” and the hotel had yet to receive any official word. This strongly suggests that the date is more aspirational than set in stone, although everything has to start from somewhere I guess.
Other logistical arrangements shouldn’t take very long to materialize if the bubble is confirmed. There is currently only one ferry service per week operating between Singapore’s Tanah Merry terminal and Bandar Bentan Telani in Bintan, and no service to Nonsgapura in Batam, but this can presumably be ramped up in no time.
There’s also talk of Bintan hotels seeking SG Clean certification to reassure Singaporean tourists (although if this Hotel 81 can meet SG Clean standards, I have serious doubts about the program), but certification shouldn’t stand in the way of reopening anyway as it’s not a requirement by the local government.
What about the Australia travel bubble?
Unfortunately, a travel bubble with Batam/Bintan may not be as straightforward as it appears on the surface.
Singapore is also pursuing a travel bubble with Australia, which is known for its strict “COVID-elimination” approach, where entire cities go into lockdown when a single case is detected (versus a COVID-containment approach in Singapore, where a small number of community cases is considered acceptable). While Singapore has brought its community spread down to near zero, Indonesia is not at that stage yet, and I doubt the Australians would be too pleased if the bubble went ahead.
The way I see it, Singapore is not about to jeopardize a potential travel bubble with Australia (which would be a boon for business, education and leisure travel) just so uncles can go to Batam for…recreational activities. Opening up travel to Australia is simply a higher priority right now, which is why I suspect there may be some bumps in the road yet for this Batam/Bintan plan.
It’s no secret the absence of Singaporean visitors has hit Bintan hard, with hotels cutting manpower, slashing prices to attract locals, and closing selected properties. Arrivals in 2020 were only 15% of 2019, and borders need to reopen sooner rather than later if the industry is to survive.
This plan sounds like it has legs, although we should probably temper our expectations regarding an April commencement.