Why Singapore’s a better bet

If the much-vaunted, on-again, off-again quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel bubble finally fully inflates next month, it will have been a long and tough full year for tourism since it was first proposed.

But there may be a late entrant, 8500 kilometres from New Zealand, that will prove a superior and more reliable early overseas destination candidate for Australians.

Singapore, which was this week identified by the Australian government as a potential travel bubble partner for June or July, enjoys a similar exemplary record in COVID-19 containment as its Australasian neighbours and, arguably, a more composed management of the virus.

It also boasts one of the finest and most advanced health systems not only in Asia but in the world (however a reciprocal medical agreement still doesn’t exist between Australia and Singapore). Furthermore, it’s worked demonstrably harder, and for that matter smarter, at rebuilding its vital tourism sector.

And, in contrast to Australia and New Zealand, based on the city-state’s record, it’s less likely to impose sudden lockdowns that risk travellers from Australia being stranded in Singapore or forced into quarantine.

While Australians will be eager to reacquaint their palates with its famous hawker-style cuisine, Singapore has proven itself far hungrier to reactivate tourism than the more circumspect Australia and New Zealand, with tourism making up a whopping 20 per cent of the latter nation’s export earnings.

Of course there’s always the fine print. Australians will need to be vaccinated in order to visit Singapore. 

In a sign of the potential for trans-Tasman bubble trouble ahead, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, this week issued a warning to her citizens.

She said that if the quarantine-free air bridge opens with Australia, possibly as early as mid-next month, New Zealanders risk being embroiled in one of our notorious state and territory snap lockdowns and border closures should they visit.

However, the same warning could easily apply to Australians travelling to New Zealand as part of any full travel bubble with Ardern recently ordering the lockdown of Auckland over a single positive COVID-19 case.

“Yes, [New Zealanders] could [get stuck in Australia],” Ardern told reporters this week. “This is why we take so seriously the planning and protocols we need to put in place…Australia is dealing with the equivalent of one state [with the bubble], and we’re dealing with multiple.”

Among Singapore’s biggest COVID-19 achievements is the remarkably small number of deaths recorded from the disease there, according to Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice dean research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.

“There are three main factors to Singapore’s success in keeping COVID-19 deaths to less than 10 per million,” he says. “The first is that for the last year, the border has been secure: strict quarantine and entry testing for almost all travellers led to very few spillover infections despite the not insubstantial flow of people into the country.

“The second is the strong test, isolate, trace and quarantine system. Testing is frequent for high risk groups and symptomatic patients, positive cases are admitted to hospital for isolation to prevent infection to their families, contact tracing is thorough, and contacts are subject to monitoring to ensure they don’t violate their quarantine.

“The third is that social distancing and mask wearing rules are adhered to quite well, though there’s some fatigue with such broad-based measures.”

Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Singapore has notably been able to revive its cruise industry – albeit on a limited and controlled “safe management” basis – with “cruises to nowhere” operated by Royal Caribbean and Dream Cruises.

There has not been a single positive COVID-19 case aboard a passenger ship since cruising resumed four months ago. Meanwhile, in Australia, the larger cruise operators are yet to receive any indication from the government of a date for the resumption of cruising in Australia with the domestic summer season only six months away.

“In Singapore [cruise passengers] are tested before boarding, the density [on board] is reduced, there are no self-service buffets, some restrictions on the times kids can play, and of course there is no docking at exciting ports en route to the destination,” Cook says.

“These measures may reduce the enjoyment [of the cruise experience] but they have succeeded in keeping [passenger] ships free of the cruise-based outbreaks that stood out in the early weeks of the pandemic.”

Singapore will also have the advantage over New Zealand of having more time to prepare for the return of Australian travellers. Airport officials across the Tasman have stated that they will need as long as three weeks to prepare terminal facilities for the expected influx of overseas holiday-denied Australians.

“Everyone in the aviation sector – from airlines to border agencies – has been preparing for months for trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel,” says Scott Tasker, general manager aeronautical commercial at Auckland Airport.

“But a three-week notice period is needed so the system can ramp up operations – everything from ticketing and flight scheduling to adjusting staff rosters across everyone from airlines, caterers, and ground handlers, to the in-terminal retailers.”

International passenger numbers are currently down by as much as 97 per cent at Auckland Airport while before the pandemic, about 40 per cent of international passengers at Auckland Airport were trans-Tasman travellers.

Auckland Airport, New Zealand’s main aviation hub, is, of course, dwarfed by its Singapore equivalent.

The south-east Asian island’s financial success has been built to a large degree on the economic lung of its Changi International Airport, which in 2019 served more than 68 million passengers, leading to its ranking as one of the world’s 20 busiest airports.

“Restarting Changi Airport is essential to the Singapore economy,” says visiting professor Sherri Kimes of the department of analytics and operations at the National University of Singapore Business School.

“It is not only a national icon but is also a source of pride. In 2020, its passenger volume dropped by over 80 per cent and is projected to operate at similar levels in 2021.

“The Singaporean economy is projected to grow in 2021, but obviously without international travellers, it is nowhere close to where it was in 2019. A travel bubble with Australia would be a wonderful way to get things moving again.”

Whatever transpires, travel bubbles between nations have proved difficult to successfully launch, let alone maintain, with an ambitious air bridge between Singapore and Hong Kong recently failing at the last minute due to a major COVID-19 outbreak in the Chinese city.

But it may prove that a far more poised Singapore will be a better bet for Australians for a tentative first overseas holiday than a still tremulous and less predictable New Zealand. Then again, prospective Australian travellers will need to consider Australia’s own propensity for pricking bubbles with the existing partial trans-Tasman bubble having been paused on repeated occasions.

Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

See also: Why I’m not getting excited about a Singapore travel bubble

See also: How the Singapore travel bubble will work for Australian travellers