Gateway Cities: Despite setbacks, Australia is determined to seal a Singapore tourism deal by the end of the year. Photo/123RF
Despite the current trans-Tasman bubble, Australia has signaled its determination to open its borders to Singapore by the end of the year.
But what does this mean for New Zealand and other countries with neighbouring safe travel agreements such as the Cook Islands?
An update to Air New Zealand’s international flight schedule last week sparked speculation that a safe travel bubble could be imminent in Singapore.
In addition to the resumption of three weekly services from popular US ports (San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles), Singapore has seen a significant increase in capacity during the summer.
Auckland plans to increase weekly flights to Changi Airport from October 31. By the end of November, Christchurch Airport will add five non-stop flights to Singapore each week.
The huge increase in capacity has led many to believe the national airline is getting a head start.
Air New Zealand was quick to deny inside information on a potential Singapore bubble, saying the flights were part of an expanded “Keep International Air Connectivity” MIAC plan.
Seats on these routes are partially subsidized by cargo and government programs to maintain air connectivity that would otherwise not be feasible.
“Nearly 75,000 people returned to New Zealand on flights supported by the program,” said Transport Minister Michael Wood, who announced the latest round of plans in May.
Fifty-three percent of the total number of people passing through MIQ facilities entered the country through these subsidized MIAC air routes.
However, this summer schedule foresees an extension of the MIAC scheme (current funding ends in October) and a sharp increase in demand for international travel between Singapore and New Zealand.
A spokesman for Singapore Airlines told the Herald that their own summer timetable had not been announced, but the airline “will remain flexible and flexible in adjusting capacity to meet air travel demand.”
There are currently 10 weekly passenger flights to Auckland and 4 weekly passenger flights to Christchurch, operated by Singapore Airlines.
Airlines aren’t sure when a new travel bubble will be announced, but they can be fairly confident where it will be.
Australia has made it clear that Singapore will be a candidate for the next travel deal.
Australia’s High Commissioner to Singapore, Will Hodgman, is adamant there will be a bubble this year.
“Given the outbreak in Australia, the unpredictable nature of this virus makes travel more likely before the end of the year,” Hodgman told Reuters Bloomberg News from last week.
The growing explosion of Delta variants is a wrench at work.
Even so, Australia appears determined to open up to Singapore – possibly before New Zealand has a say in the matter.
In theory, this could result in New Zealand opening up again to international travelers through a back door.
For now, once in Australia, the “safe travel zone” agreement will allow travellers from Singapore to visit New Zealand without quarantine after 14 days.
Given that the Electronic Tourist Visa (NZeTA) is valid for up to two years, there will be a lot of people in the “gateway” who may soon be travelling to New Zealand.
A foreign ministry spokesman told Herald “New Zealand’s focus right now is on ensuring that quarantine-free travel to Australia and the Cook Islands runs smoothly. At the same time, we are looking at how we can move towards reconnecting with the world more broadly.”
If Australia opens the door to Singapore’s quarantine-free travel, it doesn’t necessarily mean the floodgates will suddenly open.
While New Zealand passport holders can enjoy safe travel between Cook and Australia, it is actually two bubbles rather than a safe travel zone.
Australia’s Foreign Office’s official advice to citizens remains “do not travel” to the Cook Islands. Travellers with Australian passports without residency or work permits in the Cook Islands may be denied boarding.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the disparity between vaccination rates in Singapore and Australia. More than 70% of Singapore’s population is fully vaccinated, while Australia’s vaccination rate remains below 13%.
Singapore’s borders are open to leisure travellers from Brunei, mainland China, Hong Kong and New Zealand.
While New Zealanders have been welcomed to fly to the country for recreation, Australians are not.
Even with Singapore’s air travel pass scheme suspended for Australians following the recent NSW outbreak, Australians continue to be “banned” from travelling outside New Zealand without an exemption.
Since the start of the pandemic, 363,796 people have applied for an overseas travel waiver, but less than half (47%) have been approved.Only 171,029 approved protector.
Australia’s demand for overseas travel and exemptions has risen month-on-month.
Banning Australians from visiting chefs is one example. This means that many Australian-based air routes remain infeasible, with travellers between Rarotonga and Australia required to stay in New Zealand for 14 days – although not technically “in quarantine”.
While the Cook Islands and Australia are negotiating their respective travel bubbles, it is clear that in the near future, international travel will involve a patchwork of individual agreements rather than the expansion of safe travel zones.
MFAT said New Zealand was unlikely to open to Singapore until a later stage in the vaccine rollout plan, saying “there is a limit to the number of countries we can safely open to Singapore” before then.
Opening more quarantine-free destinations could make travel more complicated, not less.