Singapore has eased one of the world's most stringent pandemic regimes, launching quarantine-free travel arrangements with 10 countries after nearly 21 months of closed borders.
Vaccinated people will be able to travel freely to eight countries including the UK, US, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada, as the city-state tentatively reopens while regional rival Hong Kong shows little sign of lifting tight restrictions. Singapore had already commenced a travel lane with Germany in September while quarantine free travel with South Korea will start in November.
The reopening of the Asian finance hub comes as other countries in the region, including Thailand and Australia, have started to ease travel restrictions.
The move was announced by Singapore's government this month, causing airline websites to crash and ticket prices to soar as thousands of expatriate and foreign workers have tried to go home.
Shares in Singapore Airlines rallied to their highest levels since April following the decision, up 8 per cent since the October 9 announcement.
Steven Phua, director of travel company Rave Group, said he was receiving 10 to 20 calls a day — well above pre-pandemic levels — asking about the vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) from both local Singaporeans wanting to vacation abroad and foreign workers trying to visit home.
"I agree with government policy about staying safe but it was very important for Singapore to finally reopen," he said. Tickets on Rave's online booking system have been "flying off the shelf", he added.
The reopening of some borders may help stem the outflow of foreign workers — upon which Singapore's $344bn economy is heavily reliant — during the pandemic. The country recently reported a 10.7 per cent drop in its foreign population, which includes expats, students and migrant workers, in June compared with a year earlier.
Business groups have encouraged looser border restrictions, with the European Chamber of Commerce saying reopening was "crucial".
The VTLs offer a reprieve from Singapore's stringent social-distancing restrictions. But despite switching from a Covid-zero approach to "living with" the virus, Singapore's domestic rules remain restrictive. A maximum of two people are allowed to dine together in restaurants while music at such establishments has been banned to prevent the spread of the virus.
Many in Singapore have taken to social media channels to complain about the incongruity of allowing relatively easy international travel while enforcing such heavy domestic restrictions.
The website of Singapore Airlines was temporarily unavailable following the announcement that travel restrictions would be eased, with the company citing "technical difficulties".
One British professional in the city, who waited for a few days before buying return flights to London, lamented that delaying had meant ticket prices rose from about S$5,000 (US$3,700) to $10,000 for a family of five.
Requirements for those travelling on VTLs have also caused confusion, with many turning to specialists for advice.
"We need to explain the rules to uncertain customers but we also need to keep checking websites of different governments to know their requirements," said Kay Swee Pin, managing director of SA Tours, which specialises in group travel for mainly local Singaporeans.
Making group bookings has been challenging given airlines are still flying a fraction of the flights they did before the pandemic, she said.
"Prices are definitely higher, by about 20 per cent or so," Kay said.
- Financial Times