International Travel May Resume In 2nd Half Of 2021. What Should You Expect?

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With vaccination rollouts under way in multiple countries, our dreams of jet-setting around the world may not be that far off anymore—with a few conditions.

When Singapore first announced its blanket advisory against overseas travel back in March 2020, the optimist in me assumed this would all blow over in a few months. That may have just been wishful thinking, however, because here we are more than a year later with borders still shut around the globe. Most of us can’t remember the last time we set foot on a plane, much less touched our passports.

But is there light at the end of the tunnel? With vaccine rollouts starting earlier this year, and the evidence increasingly showing that they do prevent the spread of COVID-19, travel-starved Singaporeans may have something to look forward to in the second half of 2021.

Let’s take a look at what we can expect when that happens.

No vaccine, no go

If there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain about, it’s that vaccinations will be a prerequisite for travel. Vaccinations may not be mandatory in the legal sense, but non-vaccinated travellers will have to undergo extended quarantines both on arrival and on return.

They may even find themselves with fewer options to choose from, as airlines mull over the prospect of operating ‘vaccine-only’ flights, or making them compulsory across the board.

One way or another, travellers will soon realise that not being vaccinated will make travelling so inconvenient it’s virtually impossible.

Singapore plans to vaccinate the general population from June onwards, but the pace at which this can happen heavily depends on supplies arriving on schedule. Those of you aching to travel will also need to factor in the lead-time. Most countries define “fully vaccinated” as 14 days after receiving the second dose of a two-dose regime. This means that depending on the vaccine you receive, you may only be able to schedule your travel 42 days after receiving the first dose:

  • Pfizer: Dose 1 → 21 days → Dose 2 → 14 days→ Fully vaccinated
  • Moderna: Dose 1 → 28 days → Dose 2 → 14 days→ Fully vaccinated

Therefore, the earliest most Singaporeans can realistically make travel plans should be mid-July.

Destinations will be limited by travel bubbles

You may be sick of hearing the term ‘travel bubble’ by now, but like it or not, that’s the way things will work for the foreseeable future.

Unless a country plans to open its borders unilaterally to vaccinated visitors (which then raises the question as to whether they’ll have to serve a SHN upon returning to Singapore),  travel options for Singaporeans will be limited to places where the authorities have worked out mutual systems of vaccination recognition and testing.

The IATA Travel Pass is likely to see widespread adoption soon | Photo: IATA

There’s already a massive push for this (spearheaded, unsurprisingly, by the travel industry), and a likely candidate would be the IATA Travel Pass. This mobile app allows passengers to obtain and store their COVID-19 test results and vaccination history from accredited laboratories. IATA expects to make this app available in the second half of April, and Singapore has announced that it will accept the pass for inbound travellers come May.

As alluded to in the previous section, travel bubbles will also almost certainly call for all travellers to be vaccinated. This was mentioned by the Australian authorities when discussing a travel bubble between Singapore and Australia, and was recently announced as a requirement for Hong Kong residents intending to travel to Singapore under the existing travel bubble (which all but guarantees it’ll be a requirement for Singaporeans too).

You may be confined to a resort bubble

Even if you’re able to travel, you may find yourself restricted in terms of movement upon arrival. This is especially the case for resort destinations in places where COVID-19 community spread is still active among the general population.

What’s likely to happen is the formation of ‘resort bubbles’, sealed-off tourism areas with hotels, restaurants, bars and attractions where staff have been vaccinated. Visitors will be able to travel freely within such zones, but not outside of them. The idea has already been proposed by the Indonesian authorities, in the context of a Singapore-Bintan travel bubble.

Resort map for Bintan – a resort bubble would see a section of the island ring fenced off for tourists

If it’s any consolation, these shouldn’t hamper your vacation plans unless you’re the type of traveller who really goes off the beaten path. The authorities want you out and about and spending money, and it’s likely the fenced off areas will be places most tourists wouldn’t normally venture to anyway.

COVID-19 coverage will become increasingly common among travel insurance policies

Travel insurance underwriters increasingly provide COVID-19 coverage

At the onset of the pandemic, many travel insurance providers moved quickly to exclude COVID-19 coverage from their policies. However, there’s now a discernible shift in the opposite direction. Insurance underwriters have realised that people are unwilling to travel if they don’t receive explicit assurances about COVID-19, and if no one travels, no one buys travel insurance.

Because of this, a number of major providers (such as NTUC Income, Sompo, AXA, and Allianz) now advertise COVID-19 coverage as a feature of their policies. These policies cover overseas medical expenses and emergency medical evacuations arising from COVID-19, and it’s surely only a matter of time before other providers follow suit.

In fact, travel insurance with COVID-19 coverage may even become mandatory for travellers. Before the pandemic, certain countries already required proof of travel insurance upon entry, and it’s not hard to see this expanding in scope.

Airfares may rise (initially), but hotel prices should remain low

When travel does resume, some have voiced concerns that airlines and hotels might hike their prices to take advantage of early adopters.

While I’m sure they’d love to, I actually think we’re likely to see higher airfares and lower hotel prices in the short term. Over a longer period, airfares are likely to come down, and hotel prices may increase slightly.

It’s a simple matter of demand and supply. To illustrate, when the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble was first announced in October, airfares between the two cities skyrocketed. That made sense, as the initial travel bubble called for just one flight per day in each direction. With only 200 seats available, there was only one direction for prices to go.

But hotel prices in Hong Kong remained flat. With tens of thousands of hotel rooms sitting vacant, a few hundred additional visitors per day was never going to cause a price spike. In fact, some properties may have even cut their prices slightly to attract Singapore visitors. I saw a handful of hotels offering special ‘air travel bubble’ packages, with lower prices than their public rates.

As travel bubbles stabilise and additional flights are added, airfares will naturally come down. The increase in travellers may cause an increase in hotel rates, but again it really depends on whether the influx of visitors is sufficient to put pressure on existing room supply. In the context of Singapore and Hong Kong, I highly doubt that Singapore travellers alone can cause that.

So I think that airfares aside (where supply is tightly controlled), early adopters should be able to score some good deals on accommodation and attractions.

Conclusion

While the past 12 months have wreaked unprecedented havoc on the travel industry worldwide, I’m cautiously optimistic about some form of leisure travel resuming in the second half of this year.

Vaccines will be key to this, so it goes without saying that anyone who wishes to travel should get vaccinated as soon as possible.

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By Aaron Wong
Aaron started The MileLion to help people travel better for less and impress “chiobu”. He was 50% successful. This is his story.