MORE a year after closing their borders, Australia and New Zealand will soon embark on quarantine-free journeys. Starting April 19, residents of both countries can cross the Tasman Sea to do business, see family and friends – or just revel in the novelty of vacationing in another country.
The trans-Tasman bubble is not the first between countries to have brought cases of covid-19 infections close to zero. This award goes to Taiwan and the closest country with which it maintains diplomatic relations, Palau. On April 1, 96 Taiwanese tourists and the jubilant President of Palau, Surangel Whipps, took off from Taipei for the tiny Micronesian state, where the tourism industry has been hammered. Yet it is hardly a question of unfettered travel. Taiwanese vacationers must test negative for covid-19 at the airport. In Palau, they can only travel in approved tour groups, stay in designated hotels, and follow specific routes. Back in Taiwan, they must avoid public transport, restaurants and crowded places for five days. They can’t even share rooms with family members at home. Yet that beats the only other reason to get on a plane: two hours of “flights to nowhere”.
The trans-Tasmanian bubble is a bigger problem. Before the pandemic, the 1.5 million Australians who visited New Zealand each year accounted for 40% of all international visitors. For months, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who vigorously controlled covid-19 at the country’s borders, resisted Australian pressure for a bubble as long as localized epidemics persisted in Australia. “As far as I know our tourist towns really want the Australians back,” Ms Ardern said this week, justifying the long wait, “I know they don’t want the covid back either, period.”
Yet the Trans-Tasmanian bubble, for which neither tests nor vaccinations are necessary, will not be like theft once was. There are contact tracing forms to fill out. Wearing a mask in airports and on flights will be compulsory. Upon landing, passengers will be sequestered from arrivals from other locations. Importantly, any new coronavirus outbreak in Australia could mean Kiwi travelers are stranded or, upon return, subject to a full 14 days of supervised quarantine. Some Australian acquaintances from Banyan express reluctance to book a Kiwi ski vacation in case the airlift gets out of shape.
Shattering the Trans-Tasmanian bubble hints at the challenge of expanding bubbles across Asia. The Cook Islanders are free to travel to New Zealand without any quarantine, and kiwis may soon be allowed to go the other way. An expected Hong Kong-Singapore bubble, which burst at the last minute due to a new wave of infections in Hong Kong late last year, could be inflated further. Thailand, meanwhile, is keen to welcome holidaymakers from Hong Kong. But it’s embarrassing for Hong Kong to allow travel to too many other places before it can travel to the rest of China – a step mainland authorities are not yet ready to authorize.
Singapore, meanwhile, has spoken with several places about the bubbles. But he doesn’t want to budge until he hosts the World Economic Forum in August. He plans to use this event to show his handling of the pandemic and is not likely to spoil the story.
Singapore and Australia, like other Asian countries with good pandemic histories, may not start blowing multiple bubbles until their populations achieve herd immunity through vaccination. Qantas, an Australian carrier, does not plan flights to Singapore and beyond until October. Yet this raises two other complications. One is bureaucratic. It will be impossible, says an executive of an airline, to resume the trip based on “pieces of paper” as proof of vaccination against covid-19 or negative tests. Yet governments have been slow to agree on a digital standard, despite Singapore joining the International Air Transport Association this week.
The biggest stumbling block is the slow rollout of vaccines across Asia, both due to the shortage of supplies and the reluctance to receive the vaccine. In Hong Kong, the reluctance to take vaccines is driven by an abysmal confidence in the government. Immunization programs in Singapore and Australia are also progressing more slowly than expected. And so a paradoxical perspective: trips to North America and Europe, which have mismanaged the pandemic but are doing better with vaccinations, may resume faster than among countries in Asia, which have managed the pandemic well. but struggle to get their arms drawn.
All of our pandemic and vaccine related stories can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also listen to The Jab, our new podcast on the race between injections and infections, and find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus in Europe and America.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Bubble trouble”