In early 2021, the governments of India and the Maldives announced a bilateral arrangement to create an air travel bubble, the first of its kind in South Asia.
Bubbles or otherwise known as “transport bubbles” or “air travel arrangements” are temporary air arrangements between two countries aimed at restarting commercial passenger services while scheduled international flights are suspended. Bubbles are reciprocal in nature, meaning that airlines from both countries that join the arrangement will enjoy equal or similar benefits.
Under the bubble arrangement between the two countries, Maldivian nationals, residents and foreign nationals and Indian nationals holding a valid Maldives visa can travel from India to Maldives at the discretion of the airline.
Likewise, Indian nationals, all Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders and Origin of India (PIO) cardholders holding passports of any country, foreigners including diplomats holding valid Indian visas as per current guidelines, can travel to India from the Maldives.
At the same time, the concept of a travel bubble is relatively new in the airline industry, and many may question its origins.
What exactly is a “travel bubble”?
In addition to the aforementioned names, travel bubbles have also been called “travel bridges” or “corona corridors”. As mentioned earlier, the relative goal is to restart commercial passenger services between countries that have joined the travel bubble arrangement. This is achieved by reducing waiting times for “select groups of travelers” from certain countries where Covid-19 cases have been brought under control.
“In a ‘travel bubble’, some countries agree to open their borders to each other but keep them closed to all other countries. People can thus move freely within the bubble, but cannot enter from the outside,” writes a University of Oxford researcher.
How does the “travel bubble” work?
Countries joining these arrangements are investing time and effort, and taking a certain amount of risk and trust; at this point, each partner country trusts the other in its ability to contain the virus through over-testing, contact tracing, and effective quarantining. That’s why some have suggested that the best or best time to create a travel bubble is when there are no more cases in the two countries joining the arrangement, to ensure that allowing travelers from the other country is less risky.
The researchers also said that “travel bubbles also make sense if neighboring countries have similar numbers of cases and respond to the epidemic in the same way.”
What good is it?
First, travel bubbles are meant to focus on rebuilding or reviving flagging tourism industries in partner countries. Take Australia and New Zealand as examples. The former accounts for nearly 40 percent of New Zealand’s international tourist arrivals, and tourism is the country’s largest export industry.
Likewise, in terms of the relationship between Maldives and India, the latter happens to be one of the strongest source markets for Maldives tourism. In 2021, India ranks second among the top ten tourist source markets, after the Maldives. According to reports, as of the end of December 2021, on an annual basis, the number of tourists from India to the Maldives in 2021 exceeded 200,000.
At the same time, India is one of the main destinations for Maldives tourism, enjoying various benefits; among them medical tourism is the most important niche market.
So, if done right, the goal of a travel bubble is to provide economic benefits to partner countries based on mutual relationships between them.