2021 marked the return of international travel for Singaporeans, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Here are my predictions for travel in 2022.
As far as international travel is concerned, 2021 is a year that started and ends in uncertainty.
At the beginning of the year, Singapore had just begun its vaccine rollout for healthcare workers and seniors. Borders remained shut, even as rumours of travel bubbles with Australia, Bintan and Taiwan came and went. The now-infamous Hong Kong ATB resurfaced with a May commencement date, only to be completely abandoned later.
But as Singapore’s vaccinated population grew, things started to look rosier. In August, Brunei and Germany became Singapore’s inaugural Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) partners, with Germany offering two-way quarantine-free travel for the first time in more than 18 months.
The initial VTLs proved successful in reopening borders while keeping infections under control, and the list has grown to 27 countries including crowd favourites like Australia and South Korea. For the first time in a long while, everyone was getting excited about year-end travel.
And then, Omicron. In the space of just a week, much of the gains over the past year were erased. Testing requirements were reintroduced, border measures tightened, quarantines reinstated. It felt like we were heading back to March 2020.
So where does that leave us, as 2021 draws to a close? Will the upcoming year be more of the same, or can we finally break out of this vicious cycle? What does 2022 hold in terms of travel?
While no one knows for certain, here’s my attempt at an educated guess.
The Omicron wildcard
Let’s start with the thing that’s on everyone’s minds now: Omicron.
A new, heavily-mutated variant which can reinfect previously infected individuals and potentially evade vaccines? After all the progress made, Omicron feels like a nasty sucker punch.
We’ve already seen early signs of how it could wreak havoc on the recovering travel industry. International travellers to Sydney and Melbourne now need to isolate for 72 hours on arrival. Japan and Israel have closed their borders to all nonresident foreigners. India has brought back home quarantine for 12 countries, including Singapore.
At this point, no one knows how this story ends. In a best case scenario, Omicron turns out to be the variant we were waiting for, in the sense that it’s more infectious but less severe than the existing strains, allowing health authorities to treat COVID as truly endemic. In a worst case scenario, well, we’re in for a very long 2022.
What’s clear is that year-end travel plans will be severely curtailed by Omicron, because even if it turns out to be much ado about nothing, it’ll surely be January at the earliest that a reversion to the status quo happens.
If you’re planning to travel over the rest of this year, you’ll need to stay on your toes. Testing requirements and border measures are liable to change on short notice, and just in the past week we’ve seen the USA tighten its pre-departure test window, the UK and Switzerland add pre-departure test requirements for travellers from Singapore, and Singapore adding daily COVID-19 ART swabbing for all VTL arrivals.
Omicron’s going to be a rough ride, so buckle up.
The return of weekend getaways
The initial VTLs were focused on long-haul destinations like Europe and the USA/Canada, with hardly any partners in the region (Brunei doesn’t count, since Singaporeans can’t enter without quarantine).
However, in recent weeks we’ve seen ASEAN neighbours Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand added to the scheme, and despite the recent setback with the Omicron variant, I firmly believe 2022 will be the year that weekend getaway returns.
The main barrier is the cost of testing. After all, there’s little point in a long weekend in Bangkok when the cost of tests could well exceed the cost of your plane ticket. However, we’re already seeing steps to reduce the testing burden for travellers.
Last month, Singapore announced that the cheaper antigen rapid tests (ARTs) would be valid as a pre-departure test for travel to Singapore, instead of the more expensive PCR variety. Elsewhere, Thailand previously announced its intention to replace the on-arrival test from a PCR to an ART from mid-December. Although this was later reversed due to Omicron, it clearly shows the direction they’re moving in - tourism-dependent economies realise they need to reduce the testing burden in order to attract visitors.
If testing can be kept as simple as ART swabs at the airport in either direction, the weekend getaway is back on.
More family travel
While unvaccinated children aged 12 and under are allowed to accompany their vaccinated parents on VTL trips, 2022 will be the year we see the family trip returning in earnest.
That’s because some anxious parents may be holding back on travel until their children can get vaccinated. Singapore is due to start vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds from early 2022, which will provide further peace of mind to take that long overdue family trip.
Wider travel insurance coverage for COVID-19
While an increasing number of travel insurance plans provide coverage for COVID-19 related medical expenses, quarantine allowance and trip cancellation, there are still some hold-outs like ERGO, Tiq and Tokio Marine.
In my opinion, however, it’s only a matter of time before every travel insurance plan out there provides some sort of COVID-19 protection. With all the concerns travellers have, the market will force underwriters to stop putting blanket exclusions on COVID.
When that happens, merely covering COVID-19 will no longer be a selling point, and policies will have to compete on things like quantum of coverage and strictness of definitions. That can only be a good thing for consumers.
Boost it or lose it
Once vaccinated, always vaccinated? Not quite. If you plan to head overseas in 2022, you’ll almost certainly need to get that booster jab (and even if you’re staying in Singapore, you probably should!).
The MOH is currently in the process of reviewing the duration for which a person holds fully vaccinated status, which currently stands at 365 days from the 14th day after the second dose is administered. Given the evidence showing waning protection as time goes by, I expect booster jabs to be a prerequisite for retaining one’s vaccinated status.
Being fully vaccinated is a requirement to travel on the VTL back to Singapore, but there are also implications for outbound travel.
In Europe, the EU is proposing a nine-month expiry date on its COVID vaccine passports, which allow people to access vaccinated-only venues and avoid quarantine on arrival. To extend the validity, a booster will be required. Indeed, some countries like Austria, Croatia, Switzerland and Vietnam have already set their own limits on vaccination validity. If that’s the standard they set for their own citizens, what more for foreign visitors?
Therefore, you should make it a point to get your booster shot as soon as you’re eligible for one.
Staycations won’t disappear
Will the return of international travel spell the end of staycations? I doubt it.
Even though a hotel room in Orchard is a poor replacement for wandering the streets of Seoul, staycations will continue to serve as an important outlet for those who need a change of scenery, but:
- Have concerns about travelling because of underlying health conditions
- Work for companies that prohibit all non-essential travel
- Are concerned about the administrative implications of testing positive overseas (e.g. unable to return to Singapore for at least 14 days)
- Are concerned about getting stranded overseas should border restrictions change at short notice
And since VTLs haven’t exactly opened the floodgates for tourist arrivals to Singapore, hotels will still be dependent on locals to fill up rooms and keep the lights on. We’ll definitely see plenty of local-focused staycation promotions in 2022.
While travel in 2022 won’t be anywhere as frictionless as it was pre-COVID, it’s certainly going to offer more options than 2021. Even if COVID throws a few unexpected curve balls, I fully expect governments to continue their push to reopen borders and reconnect economies - they can’t afford not to.
That’s something to be thankful for, as the year draws to a close.
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