Covid-19 Surge Throws “Travel Bubbles” into Doubt

Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are pushing back plans for restarting international tourism to avoid a second wave of the virus.

Downtown Auckland, New Zealand at first light. (Photo: georgeclerk/iStock)

With a fresh outbreak in Melbourne and the border between Victoria and New South Wales closed for the first time in a century, the much-anticipated Trans-Tasman “travel bubble” looks less and less likely to happen in the next few months. Victoria’s spike in infections has dashed hopes to resume quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand by September.

In an interview with public broadcaster TVNZ earlier this week, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern suggested there were two different ways a travel bubble might proceed. “We have a system that would work with a state-by-state approach or a whole country approach,” she said. “If it’s whole country we’ll be waiting because obviously there is community transmission in Victoria and we can’t risk that.”

Pursuing a state-based approach would allow New Zealand to resume travel with parts of Australia declared to be free of the virus, but it would not be a realistic option without the enforcement of internal border restrictions and the continuation of “state bubbles” within Australia. Queensland, Northern Territory, and South Australia have fared much better than Victoria so far―all three are on track to stamp out the virus as each state has only one or two active cases remaining.

Over in Thailand, the Bangkok Post has reported that a senior official from the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand said talks to create travel bubbles with countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea were being shelved, thanks to a resurgence of coronavirus infections in those countries. Yesterday, Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters that quarantine-free travel arrangements planned for the fourth quarter of 2020 could be delayed. The Thai government had hoped to let in limited numbers of leisure travelers under a three-stage travel bubble scheme that could have been rolled out as early as August.

Like New Zealand, Thailand has recorded remarkably low numbers of Covid-19 infections and related deaths. Domestic travel has largely resumed, the country has gone 44 days without local transmission, and the total count of confirmed cases (3,197) is a fraction of that found in fellow ASEAN states such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

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