Singapore travel bubble: Could Australia open New Zealand to foreign tourists?

Gateway city: In spite of setbacks, Australia is determined to have a Singapore travel agreement by the end of the year. Photo / 123RF

OPINION:

In spite of the current state of the Transtasman bubble, Australia has said it is determined to open its borders to Singapore by the end of the year.

But what does this mean for New Zealand and other countries with adjacent safe travel agreements, such as the Cook Islands?

Speculation that a safe travel bubble with Singapore may be imminent was fuelled last week by Air New Zealand’s international flight scheduling update.

As well as a return to three flights a week for popular US ports – San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles – Singapore saw a huge increase in capacity for Summer.

Auckland is scheduled to gain weekly flights to Changi Airport from October 31. By the end of November Christchurch Airport is set to gain five direct Singapore flights a week.

This huge uptick in capacity led many to believe the national carrier was jumping the gun.

Air New Zealand was quick to dismiss inside knowledge of a potential Singapore Bubble, saying that these flights were part of the extended ‘Maintaining International Air Connectivity’ MIAC programme.

Singapore Airlines say they remain flexible to 'meet the demand'. Photo / Supplied
Singapore Airlines say they remain flexible to ‘meet the demand’. Photo / Supplied

Seats on these routes are being subsidised in part by cargo freight and the Government scheme to keep air links afloat which otherwise would be unviable.

“Nearly 75,000 people have returned to New Zealand on flights supported by the scheme” said Transport Minister Michael Wood, who announced the latest round of the scheme in May.

53 per cent of the total number of people to pass through MIQ facilities have entered the country on these subsidised MIAC air links.

However, this summer schedule anticipates both that the MIAC scheme will be extended ( the current funding ends in October ) and that there will be a dramatic increase in demand for international travel between Singapore and New Zealand.

A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines told the Herald that their own summer schedule had not been released but that the carrier “will remain nimble and flexible in adjusting capacity to meet the demand for air travel.”

There are currently 10 passenger flights a week to Auckland and four passenger flights a week to Christchurch operated by SIA.

Airlines have no certainty when a new travel bubble will be announced, but they can be fairly confident of where it will be.

Australia has been clear that Singapore is next in line for a travel agreement.

Australia’s High Commissioner to Singapore Will Hodgman was firm that a bubble would be in place this year.

“Given the outbreak in Australia, the unpredictability of this virus, it is more likely that travel will be possible towards the end of this calendar year,” Hodgman told Bloomberg news last week.

The growing outbreak of the Delta variant is a spanner in the works.

Even so, it seems that Australia is determined to open up to Singapore – possibly before New Zealand has a say in the matter.

In theory this could lead to New Zealand being opened up for international travellers again via the back door.

As it stands, once inside Australia the “safe travel zone” agreement would allow travellers from Singapore to visit New Zealand quarantine free after 14 days.

Given tourist e-visas (NZeTAs) are valid for up to two years, there will be plenty of people based in the “Gate City” for whom a trip to New Zealand may soon be on the cards.

A spokesperson for MFAT told the Herald that “New Zealand is currently focused on ensuring the smooth operation of quarantine-free travel with Australia and the Cook Islands. At the same time, we are considering how we might move towards reconnecting with the world more broadly.”

If and when Australia opens the door to quarantine-free travel from Singapore it doesn’t necessarily mean the floodgates will suddenly open.

While New Zealand passport holders can enjoy safe travel between both the Cooks and Australia, it is in fact two bubbles rather than a single safe travel area.

Australia’s official DFAT advice to citizens is still “Do not travel” to the Cook Islands. Travellers on an Australian passport risk being refused boarding if they do not have residency or a work permit in the Cook Islands.

Rarotonga: Australians are still banned from visiting and the Cook Islands. Photo / Getty Images
Rarotonga: Australians are still banned from visiting and the Cook Islands. Photo / Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the disparity between Singapore and Australia’s vaccination rates. Singapore has over 70 per cent of its population fully vaccinated, whereas Australia’s rollout still sits below 13 per cent.

Singapore’s borders are open to leisure travellers from Brunei, Mainland China, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Kiwis are already welcome to fly to the country for leisure purposes, whereas Australians are not.

Singapore’s Air Travel Pass scheme was suspended for Australians following the latest NSW outbreak and even then Australians continue to be “banned” from travelling outside of New Zealand without an exemption.

Since the beginning of the pandemic 363,796 overseas travel exemptions have been applied for however fewer than half (47 per cent) have been granted. Only 171,029 have been approved according to the Guardian.

The Australian demand for overseas travel and exemptions continues to rise, month on month.

The ban on Australians visiting the Cooks is an example of this. It has meant that many air links based out of Australia continue to be unviable, and travellers between the Rarotonga and Australia require a fourteen-day layover in New Zealand – although not technically ‘under quarantine’.

While the Cook Islands and Australia are in negotiations for their own travel bubble, it is clear that in the near future international travel will involve a patchwork of individual agreements rather than the expansion of a safe travel area.

MFAT has said it is unlikely that New Zealand will open up to Singapore until much later in the vaccine roll-out programme, saying until then “the number of countries we can safely open up to is limited.”

The opening up of more destinations quarantine-free is likely to make travel more complicated, not less.

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