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Fresh lockdowns and restrictions in Asia brought on by the faster-spreading delta coronavirus variant are making the region’s pursuit of travel bubbles look like an increasingly fruitless endeavor.
Air-travel bubbles, corridors that allow movement between countries without the need for quarantine, have largely been a letdown as nations pull up the drawbridge again to contain outbreaks. A travel link between Singapore and Hong Kong, first mooted last year, has never actually gotten underway. Talks between Australia and Singapore are still ongoing while an arrangement between Australia and New Zealand has been stop-start at best and on Friday was halted for at least eight weeks.
The patchy track record underscores how tough it will be for Asia to return to normal, with some economies clinging to a Covid-zero strategy, or a desire to stamp out the virus at all cost. Governments’ reliance upon strict movement controls to fight waves of infection — Melbourne last week entered its fifth lockdown while Tokyo is under a state of emergency as the Olympics dawns — is in contrast to the approach in Europe and the U.S., where the delta variant is spreading but where higher rates of vaccination mean travel is beginning to recover.
“Inter-regional travel is so important in the Asia Pacific and everyone is watching each other at the moment,” said Gary Bowerman, director of travel and tourism research firm Check-in Asia. “Generally there just seems to be low levels of trust, very different rates of vaccination, very different rates of managing Covid-19.”
That, in turn, makes forward planning extremely hard for airlines in Asia, he said. “The government regulations, the rules, the border issues — they keep changing all the time.”