When the history of this period is written, there’ll be a strange little footnote regarding the curious case of the Singapore – Hong Kong ATB.
First announced on 11 November 2020 with a scheduled launch date 11 days later, the bubble was hailed as a “milestone for the global tourism industry”, meant to set a “global standard” for quarantine-free travel. Similar ATBs were planned with countries like Brunei and Vietnam, and then Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung even recorded a welcome video from the Changi Jewel waterfall.
But no sooner had the bubble been announced that Hong Kong saw a spike in community COVID-19 cases. Despite last minute attempts to salvage the arrangement, including adding an additional PCR test on return to Singapore, the bubble was called off barely 15 hours before the inaugural flights were set to depart.
The dismantled balloon arch at the arrivals gate in Hong Kong International Airport bore silent witness to best-laid plans of MICE and men gone awry.
There’d be another time, they said.
And indeed, there was. It took a while, but a relaunch of the ATB was finally announced on 26 April 2021, with a start date one month later. But once again the mistake was made of announcing it too early. Someone overheard, told COVID, and this time the spike was on the Singapore side. Another postponement ensued, with an agreement to revisit the topic in late August.
Well, it’s been revisited.
The Hong Kong ATB is dead
In a move that surprised exactly four people, it’s been announced that Singapore and Hong Kong are no longer pursuing the ATB arrangement. The press releases alluded to irreconcilable differences, namely in how COVID was managed. As put across by the Hong Kong side:
All along, it was premised upon similar anti-epidemic strategies adopted by the two places, aiming to reduce local caseloads to a minimum. With Singapore currently moving towards a new strategy of building a “COVID-resilient” nation, the basic premises that underpin the ATB have changed.
tl;dr: it’s not me, it’s you.
Truth be told, this could have been seen coming a mile away. Hong Kong’s border with China is of utmost importance, certainly more important than a bunch of Singaporean tourists taking selfies with Cantonese Mickey Mouse. If China says no COVID, Hong Kong says no COVID. And if Singapore says some COVID, Hong Kong says no Singapore.
As reported in the SCMP:
Tourism lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said many Western countries were now treating the health crisis similar to seasonal influenza, while Hong Kong and the mainland continued to adopt a stricter approach.
“So if most overseas countries are adopting relatively relaxed standards, then the launch of other travel corridors involving Hong Kong and these countries will be increasingly difficult,” Yiu said.
He added Hong Kong was more interested in reopening the mainland border than restoring travel with overseas countries, with nearly 80 per cent of city arrivals traditionally coming from that part of the country.
That’s it in a nutshell. There’s a fundamental disconnect between Singapore and Hong Kong’s COVID strategies, and so long as that’s the case, there’s no grounds for an ATB.
Travel between Singapore and Hong Kong
Singapore residents can still travel to Hong Kong, but they’ll need to undergo a 14-day quarantine. This is up from the previous 7-day arrangement.
On the other hand, Singapore considers Hong Kong to be a Category 1 source (lowest risk), and travellers therefore do not need to undergo any SHN on arrival in Singapore. They will be required to take a PCR test on arrival, but can proceed with activities as per normal once a negative result is received.
|🛂Singapore Border Restriction by Category|
|Cat. I||Cat. II||Cat. III||Cat. IV||VTL|
|Application required||ATP||Details on ICA website||VTP|
|Pre-departure PCR test||✖||✖||✔|
|On-arrival PCR test||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|ART during SHN||N/A||✖||✔|
Day 3, 7, 11
Day 3, 7, 11
|Post-SHN PCR test||N/A||✔|
|No SHN. PCR test on Day 3, 7|
|Cat I: Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China (ex-Jiangsu), New Zealand, Taiwan|
Cat II: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Germany, Mainland China (Jiangsu)
Cat III: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland
Cat IV: All other countries/regions
VTL (from Sept 8): Germany, Brunei
I was personally looking forward to travelling to Hong Kong, so much so that I booked myself on both editions of the bubble. Of course it was disappointing when neither came to pass, but it is what it is.
Singaporeans do have a consolation prize, however, in the form of quarantine-free travel to and from Germany under the VTL scheme. We’re likely to see more countries added to the VTL list in the near future, although “COVID-zero” places like Australia and New Zealand are almost certainly not going to be featured.
Timothy Chui Ting-pong, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Association, says that the bubble bursting was not a disappointment “because the travel sector did not have any expectations in the first place.”
And perhaps that’s the right attitude to take.
Anyone mourning the demise of the Hong Kong ATB?