Indonesia Mulls Singapore-Riau Islands Travel Bubble

Given their lower Covid-19 infection rates and geographic closeness to the Lion City, Batam and Bintan could be the first part of the country to reopen to foreign visitors.

An aerial view of thatched-roof villas at Banyan Tree Bintan. (Photo: Chuttersnap/Unsplash)

Indonesia’s newly appointed tourism minister Sandiaga Uno has put forward the idea of welcoming Singapore-based vacationers back to the Riau Islands through a quarantine-free “travel bubble,” with the aim of reviving the travel and hospitality industries in Batam and Bintan — two popular weekend destinations that are just a short ferry ride from the Lion City.

However, Sandiaga cautioned local tourism and hotel operators to “be patient,” as he was still seeking approval from Indonesian health officials and the ministry of foreign affairs for the move, while pursuing talks with their Singaporean counterparts. According to national Indonesian news agency Antara, the minister has been touring airports, hotels, and other facilities on both islands to assess their safety protocols and their readiness to receive foreign visitors, in case the travel bubble with Singapore goes ahead. “I cannot over-promise anything,” he told reporters last Friday. “I have to be careful not to put expectations too high. Hopefully it can be realized, [and] at least Batam and Bintan can be reopened.”

The numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths in the Riau Islands have so far been remarkably low compared to those in harder-hit areas of Indonesia. According to the latest Covid-19 statistics posted by the provincial government, Batam currently has 621 active cases and Bintan just 107 infections — nearly two-thirds of which were found in its main population center, Tanjung Pinang. By comparison, Singapore as a whole has 238 active coronavirus cases.

One potential option would be to narrow the focus to Bintan Resorts, an 18,000-hectare enclave separated from the rest of the island by a barbed-wire perimeter and large swaths of forest, and where all road access from Tanjung Pinang is funneled through a single security checkpoint. But a major concern is whether visitors from Singapore and those arriving from high-risk regions in Indonesia would need to be segregated to avoid potential cross-infection. Current rules for domestic air travel dictate that all passengers must undergo a PCR test within 72 hours of departure or a rapid antigen test up to 48 hours before their flights.

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