Singaporeans go on holidays – at home, and in the air

Singaporeans are a mobile bunch, spending more than S$34bil (US$25bil) on overseas travel in 2018, compared with the some US$12.5bil that residents of similarly-sized Denmark spent on international tourism the same year.

SINGAPORE: Whether it’s chartering a private jet for a flight to nowhere or hiring a luxury yacht, some in Singapore are going to extraordinary lengths to cure the cabin fever that’s set in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For many – expats and locals alike – the beauty of the city-state, outside of its year-round balmy weather and efficiency, has always been its hyper connectivity. But travel curbs aimed at shutting out the virus mean leaving Singapore is basically off the table, a challenge for those of the financial hub’s 5.6 million residents used to popping to a Malaysian resort for the weekend, or scooting over to Bali.

Sergey Tkachev has taken to the sea. The Russian businessman chartered a yacht from White Label Charters around Singapore’s southern islands, a collection of sleepy islets lapped by green waves. He’s taken the boat out four times now – being careful not to venture into international waters.

“It’s been a big stress for us not being able to travel, ” said Tkachev, who has lived in Singapore for 12 years. “People with money usually travel every month, but now we can’t. It’s depressing.”

At just 50km from east to west and 27km from north to south, Singapore is tiny. Drive for 30 minutes either way, and you’re almost in neighbouring Malaysia, or the South China Sea. The recent news of an imminent travel bubble that wouldn’t require quarantine between Singapore and Hong Kong was met with instant excitement.

The price of air tickets spiked overnight and bookings were made even though few details have been announced – including when the corridor will even start.

Singaporeans are a mobile bunch, spending more than S$34bil (US$25bil) on overseas travel in 2018, compared with the some US$12.5bil that residents of similarly-sized Denmark spent on international tourism the same year. The easing of the country’s partial lockdown in mid-June has provided some relief, but despite a few green corridors for business travel, vacations overseas remain largely off limits.

Many of Singapore’s migrant laborers, those most affected by the pandemic, have found themselves restricted not just to the island, but to their living quarters.

Since some social-distancing restrictions started to be lifted amid a dwindling of virus cases, demand for yacht charters has shot up by more than 20%, according to Sylvia Ng, a senior manager at One Degree 15 Luxury Yachting, which has over 42 vessels in its fleet.

Most offer four- to five-hour sailing packages, plus overnight stays in some cases, and provide a variety of water toys like paddle boards and kayaks. Jetskis are available upon request, as are extras including a personal chef and wait staff.

For some Singaporeans, the solution to cabin fever is to seize on anything that reminds them of travel. Seats on Singapore Airlines Ltd’s superjumbo-turned-pop-up restaurant sold out in 30 minutes, with some paying upwards of S$600 for a meal in a suite on the stationary Airbus SE A380.

Cruise lines Genting and Royal Caribbean will run “cruises to nowhere” out of Singapore in November and December, and some are already sold out. Changi Airport, routinely ranked as one of the world’s best, remains open for business despite there being hardly any flights, with people able to shop and dine at shopping mall Jewel and order online from retailers on the transit side.

While Singapore’s size means the pressure to ease border restrictions is acute, the government is cautious.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke plainly in parliament earlier this month.

“What is at stake is not just hundreds of thousands of jobs, but our status as an air hub, Singapore’s relevance to the world, our economic survival, and in turn, the ability to determine our own future, ” he said. “We must open up slowly, carefully, and holding each other accountable for our collective safety. But open up we must.”

As in all countries, there’s a “tension between the demands to boost the economy with those of protecting health, ” said Alex Cook, an associate professor and vice dean of research at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

“If travellers move between countries of similar incidence, the risk of transmission shouldn’t change. So the objective now is to calibrate border control measures to the risk posed, ” Cook said.— Bloomberg

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