Beyond the Tarmac

Global travel and tourism industry is now pinning its hopes on creation of a “travel bubble” that seeks to help reconnect countries that have shown a good level of success in containing the novel coronavirus pandemic domestically.

With the pandemic throwing both international and domestic travel and trade out of gear since early 2020, such ‘travel bubbles’ are now being recommended to put global economy back on track.

Travel bubble is now the new buzzword in Asia, as several countries, particularly in South East Asia, appear to have Covid-19 under control.

Although in very early stages, countries in Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) – Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia are now considering creation of a travel bubble as they are flattening the curve of virus infections and starting to reopen their economies.

Tourism in the Asean was hit early because of its proximity to China, where the virus broke out, and its reliance on Chinese tourists for revenue.

All over Southeast Asia, governments and companies are focusing on domestic tourism in the wake of the collapse in international travel, VOA News noted.

Last month, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania kicked off a ‘Baltic travel bubble’ to help put their economies back on track, post-Covid lockdowns.

The Baltic economies are expected to shrink by 8% this year, because of the impact of coronavirus pandemic, international broadcaster BBC said.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have now come together to attempt to revive their respective tourism industries, in what is seen as the first “coronavirus travel bubble” in Europe.

Residents of these nations are now able to travel freely across each other’s borders without self-isolation provided they adhere to local social distancing rules.

The three European Union (EU) states have so far remained comparatively unscathed by the ferocious virus and have been fairly successful at managing the outbreak.

Such a bubble would allow the members of the group to rekindle trade ties with each other, and kick-start sectors such as travel and tourism.

Those wanting to enter the Baltic corridor from countries outside would first have to go into isolation for 14 days. To be able to freely travel in the zone, one should not have travelled outside the three countries in the past 14 days, should not be infected with coronavirus, and should not have come in contact with anyone who has been coronavirus infected.

In early May, Australia and New Zealand reached an agreement to form a travel bubble between the two countries, once it becomes safe to operate flights between them. Both have had success in suppressing the pandemic domestically.

Under this, the trans-Tasman zone will allow travel without a quarantine period.

The latest to contemplate a ‘bubble’ is India, which has mulled establishment of “individual bilateral bubbles” with the US, the UK, Germany and France.

India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation was quoted as saying by news agency PTI, “As we contemplate further opening up in response to demands, we are looking at the prospect of establishing individual bilateral bubbles, India-US, India-France, India-Germany, India-UK. These are all destinations where demand for travel has not diminished. Final decisions pursuant to negotiations are expected to be taken soon.”

Ironically, India’s statement came on the heels of the recent US Department of Transportation’s announcement that it has barred Air India from operating chartered flights between India and the United States from July 22 without its prior approval, in what seems to be a retaliatory measure against Indian government’s decision of not allowing American carriers to operate between the two countries.

The United States Department of Transportation (DoT) restricted repatriation flights being operated by Air India, and accused India of being “unfair”, and engaging in “discriminatory practices”. Air India will now need specific authorisation from the DoT to conduct such flights.

According to a report in The Economist, potential travel bubbles among better-performing countries around the world would account for around 35% of the global GDP.

Such arrangements are especially being favoured by smaller countries, who are likely to benefit after being able to trade again with larger partners.

Industry analysts say restrictions on travel should first be lifted in areas with a comparable epidemiological situation and where sufficient capabilities are in place in terms of hospitals, testing, surveillance and contact tracing capacities.

Creating safe travel zones between countries are essential for speedy global economic recovery. The rapid establishment of travel and trade links between economies that are emerging from lockdown will kick-start the process.

While tourist and business travel might take time to return to pre-pandemic levels, a sizeable chunk of global freight also flies in the bellies of passenger aircraft.

Hence, it will be useful for countries (at a similar stage in their pandemic recovery) to create safe travel zones between them.

It can be a slow process, but it will be a great, first start, nonetheless. In time, zones could start to link together.

Travel bubbles are an idea being trotted out around the world as governments open their economies again.

Such travel corridors may help keep at least parts of the global economy afloat.

*Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn