HONG KONG, Nov 12 (SCMP): With Hong Kong slated to open a travel bubble with Singapore in less than two weeks, the city’s beleaguered tourism industry is preparing to roll out packages to entice visitors, although companies remain cautious in their business outlook due to the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The two governments said on Wednesday that the long-awaited arrangement would take effect on November 22, with a maximum of 200 travellers allowed to move in each direction every day, quarantine-free. But they must take designated flights and meet specific conditions and requirements, including taking up to three Covid-19 tests at different stages of the trip. The screenings are expected to cost about HK$1,880 (US$130), and rapid tests would not be an option initially.
The scheme will also be suspended if the average daily number of untraceable Covid-19 cases in a week reaches more than five in either city, and will resume when it falls below that figure again.
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Travel Industry Council chairman Jason Wong Chun-tat said the arrangement was a good starting point for Hong Kong to forge travel bubbles with other countries, such as Japan and Thailand. As of last month, the Hong Kong government had reached out to governments in 10 other destinations to discuss setting up such a scheme.
“I believe in the beginning, tour agents will take a vigilant approach,” Wong said. “But gradually they will launch more tour products, such as commercial tours to Singapore, especially as Christmas approaches.”
Hong Thai Travel Services is gearing up for demand but waiting for confirmation of details from Hong Kong’s airlines. A spokeswoman admitted consumers might be hesitant to commit to travelling given the bubble could be suspended at any time over untraceable infections.
“This condition will dampen travellers’ interests and make it difficult for them to plan their journey, as the pandemic in both places is still unstable,” she said.
Would-be travellers had mixed feelings about the new arrangement. “With projects coming up in Singapore, this is a big deal for us,” said Jeremy Smart, a 27-year-old creative director of a publishing firm, who said he would fly to Singapore for five weeks for business.
“The uncertainty around case numbers remaining low enough to maintain the bubble is worrying – being able to forward plan is critical. But ultimately, I need to be able to move around again, so the sooner this starts, the better.”
Felix Lam, 50, founder and creative director of Visual Media, a video production firm, said he had long hoped to fly to Singapore, where he plans to move in the coming years.
“We travel there at least once every year so my family will get familiarised with the environment of Singapore,” said the father of two.
But given the uncertainty over the pandemic in Hong Kong, Lam said he did not have any immediate plans to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I don’t want to leave my parents behind to travel to Singapore for vacation when the pandemic is still going on in Hong Kong,” he said. “It can worsen at any time.”
Lam expressed unease over the prospect of waiting hours for test results at the Hong Kong airport, fearing his children would get restless. But he shrugged off the cost of testing, saying the fee was reasonable for people already prepared to dish out several thousand dollars for a ticket.
Meanwhile, in a joint statement, the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) and the Singapore Tourism Board said they would work together to roll out promotions to boost the travel bubble, including welcome gifts for the first batch of visitors.
Passengers on travel bubble flights through the end of the year will also be treated to a special in-flight menu that includes local favourites from both cities curated by Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines.
“It is a hugely important moment that shows the world that safe international travel is possible, and paves the way for us to bring tourist flights to and from other markets,” said HKTB executive director Dane Cheng.
“We have laid on a selection of amazing offers for our visitors, including hotels and attractions, a diverse selection of travel experiences, and incredible value-for-money deals.”
The HKTB has rolled out the Anti-Epidemic Hygiene Measures Certification Scheme to help visitors ensure that every point of their journey is covered by safety measures, while Singapore’s SG Clean programme fulfils a similar purpose in the city state.
In Hong Kong, visitors can enjoy the Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival, the great outdoors and world-class exhibitions, such as the masterworks from the Uffizi in the Hong Kong Museum of Arts.
In Singapore, Hongkongers can try out new offerings such as Aqua Gastronomy, an underwater dining pop-up, and the Changi Jurassic Mile, an outdoor display of lifelike dinosaurs lining a path that connects Marina Bay downtown to Changi Airport.
EGL Tours said in a statement that it would launch a series of tours to Singapore with a maximum of 20 people per group, as well as small-group tours of two to five people each.
“At this moment we are still awaiting the confirmation of details such as the testing arrangement in Singapore ... before we can roll out our tour products. In the future visitors should be prepared to adapt to an anti-epidemic mode of travelling,” said EGL executive director Steve Huen Kwok-chuen.
George Leung Siu-kay, CEO of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, hailed the travel bubble as a first step to helping reopen Hong Kong and resume normal cross-border activities, calling on the local government to form more bubbles with other countries.
“While we understand the complexity of negotiating travel agreements, we hope the government can continuously explore restarting travel with other destinations that are also successfully controlling infections, such as New Zealand and Australia,” he said.
Meanwhile, Conrad Clifford, Asia-Pacific vice-president of the International Air Transport Association, said the bubble, “though starting small, is a step in the right direction to reboot international travel in the region”. - South China Morning Post