Travel bubbles, air bridges and bilateral discussions: International travel in the COVID era

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Countries are looking to resume international air travel through bilateral air corridors, or air bridges.
Countries are looking to resume international air travel through bilateral air corridors, or air bridges.

As the world prepares for a life amidst COVID-19, countries are slowly easing restrictions and opening up borders to facilitate international travel. India, which is emerging cautiously from a three-month-long stringent lockdown, is contemplating restarting international air services with select countries.

As per the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), India is looking at moving from 'controlled and managed evacuation' of Indian citizens in different parts of the world and foreign nationals from India, to the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements.

This move comes at a time when more countries are putting pressure on India to allow its carriers to operate in the country.

The United States recently informed Air India that it would need to obtain prior approval if it wishes to fly in and out of the US from July 22. This in retaliation to what it calls India’s impairing operating rights of US carriers and engaging in discriminatory and restrictive practices.

According to the MoCA, India had a round of negotiations with representatives of the US Department of Transportation and US Embassy on this issue, on June 15.

France has also not been allowing India to operate flights via Vande Bharat since June 22.

The MoCA is contemplating travel bubbles between India and countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, US and France. As per the Ministry, these individual bilateral bubbles are destinations where demand for travel has not diminished.

Connecting through bridges and bubbles

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit travel and tourism hard. As per the Economist, while people took 4.6 billion flights last year, in April 2020, this trickled down to just 47 million passengers flying – taking levels back to 1978.

Further, the United Nations agency for tourism, UNWTO, pointed out in May that tourism would see a decline of 58 - 78 per cent in international tourist arrivals for the year, depending on the speed of containment, duration of travel restrictions and border shutdowns. UNWTO has termed 2020 the worst year for international tourism since 1950, putting an abrupt end to the 10 year growth since the 2009 financial crisis.

While most governments are still advising their citizens against non-essential international travel, some countries are looking to curtail the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the travel industry by reducing restrictions on international arrivals.

This is being done by entering into bilateral agreements, also known as travel bridges or travel bubbles which will enable countries to share air corridors and allow travellers to move between two countries with limited infections.

In most cases, these agreements would do away with the waiting period for travellers from countries where the outbreak has been controlled. For a travel bubble or bridge to form, both countries do not necessarily need to be COVID-free, however, they need to be at similar stages of reopening.

Destinations that are opening up to visitors

Europe is leading the move to ease down restrictions as it slowly opens its borders to tourists. In mid-May, the Baltic bloc of Estonia Lithuania and Latvia were the first countries to create a bubble allowing free movement within the countries. Hungary and Slovenia followed suit, easing border restrictions between the two countries.

While European Union officials have been negotiating over two lists of nationalities that will be allowed to travel into Europe once borders open from July 1st, the United Kingdom is considering travel bridges with select countries from July. Travellers from France, Italy, Spain and Germany may soon be able to visit the UK and vice versa, without the mandatory quarantine period.

As per reports, the bridges will only be available with countries that have a coronavirus tracing system. The British government is also reportedly in talks with Australia to set up an air bridge with the long haul destination.

However, in what is being looked at as a blow to US President Donald Trump and his handling of the pandemic, the United States, which tops the list of countries with the most number of cases, has been left out of the bubble

In Asia, Malaysia is looking at travel bubbles with Singapore and Brunei. The country has also approached Australia and New Zealand for the same, as per reports. Malaysia has seen a total of 8,600 cases and 121 deaths.

China and Singapore have also entered into a COVID-19 bubble for essential travel. However, there are restrictions and rules to follow before such a journey can be made. Travellers need to test negative for COVID, stick to itineraries they have submitted to authorities and use the host country’s contact tracing app. They will further need to have a sponsor, which would be a government agency or a company, and get approval from authorities for a SafeTravel Pass.

The Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Sweden have also formed travel bubbles, but have excluded Sweden from it. With 63,890 cases and 5,230 deaths, Sweden has the highest COVID-toll in the region. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s COVID-19 specialist, recently admitted that the country could have done more in terms of restrictions.

Fiji, a country that relies heavily on tourism which employs about 1,50,000, people, is considering a similar bubble with Australia and New Zealand, which will allow members of the two countries to visit the country, as numbers have reduced.

However, before entering Fiji, travellers from Australia and New Zealand will need to quarantine first in their home countries for two weeks and submit a certificate verifying the isolation period, and also show a negative test report. Travellers can also quarantine at a Fiji hotel for two weeks.

The country is also looking to create a Pacific Pathways corridor which would allow visitors from Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu to enter the country, however, with the quarantine clause.

The United States is not looking to open its borders soon. As per Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading public health official, restrictions on international travel could remain for months, possibly till a vaccine is found.

With countries opening up their borders, albeit with restrictions, the list of places that travellers can visit is set to expand in the coming months. No country can afford to keep its borders closed for long and, thus, will need to proceed with caution. However, one thing is apparent - travel in the COVID-era may be nothing like what we have been used to so far.

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