Overseas vacations in sight with signing of first travel bubble

South Korea will sign its first travel bubble agreement with Saipan on Wednesday, paving the way for quarantine-free international travel amid the pandemic.

The deal will allow people from both places and their family members who have received vaccinations approved by the local health authorities — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca — to go on a package tour without quarantine, starting sometime between late July and early August.

Travelers are required to wait for two weeks after vaccination, the Transport Ministry said.

Hotels and itineraries will be set ahead of time in an effort to stop the spread of the virus while travelers will be subject to a coronavirus test within 72 hours before leaving for their destination.

The move comes after the Transport Ministry announced plans to open up international travel between safe countries earlier this month.

Earlier this week, Korean Air also began selling tickets for flights to Guam starting from early August.

The weekly flight was originally set to start in November but the plan was moved up following Guam’s decision to let those who have received AstraZeneca vaccines enter the island without quarantine.

“We hope the plan responds to the general public’s travel demand that has been suppressed and help recover the aviation and tourism sectors,” said Kim Hong-rak, the director of the international air transport division said.

With the travel scheme only covering package tours for now, some have expressed frustration.

“If quarantine safety measures are ensured, the government should extend the travel bubble to business and individual tours,” Kim Kwang-ok, vice president of the Korea Civil Aviation Association, said during a meeting organized by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Tuesday.

As of 2019, over 8 in 10 foreign tourists to South Korea were independent travelers while the figure for outbound travelers stood at 70 percent, Kim said.

As a proof of vaccination, travelers will be asked to present either an official document or use COOV – a blockchain-based COVID-19 vaccination verification mobile app developed by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Responding to concerns over the Delta variant, which has seen cases rise in countries like India and the UK, the transport ministry said the risk is “very low,” citing Saipan’s high vaccination rates.

The Northern Mariana Islands has seen a total of 183 cases of which over 80.3 percent were imported.

Over 60 percent of the population has had two shots of their vaccinations as of Tuesday.

In South Korea, nearly 30 percent have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to health officials on Wednesday.

When the number of cases rises or a new variant outbreak occurs, the travel scheme could be put on hold even after it had started, according to the Transport Ministry.

By Yim Hyun-su ([email protected])

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