Why it makes sense for Maldives to be Singapore’s first leisure travel bubble

By Brendan Sobie

Singapore could take the lead in the Asia Pacific in establishing leisure green lanes, spearheading a partial recovery in international air travel and tourism.

Transport Minister Ong Ke Yung’s remarks last week about Singapore considering reciprocal green lanes for leisure travel has provided a glimmer of hope for the region’s aviation and tourism sectors, which have been decimated by the closure of borders since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic early this year.

While there has been talk of leisure travel bubbles in the Asia Pacific since early May, not a single example has emerged.

Leisure travel has meanwhile resumed in Europe, where the first travel bubble was established in mid-May, and in other regions such as the Middle East.

In the Asia Pacific, only domestic tourism has so far resumed despite it having the first countries and territories that were able to successfully contain the coronavirus outbreak.

So far in Asia there has only been a small number of business travel bubbles that are so onerous and restricted that passenger volumes have been tiny.

For Singapore, the fast lane with China has generated very few passengers since it was introduced in June and the new green lane with Malaysia has a cap of only 400 business travellers per week.

Until last week, Singapore was only considering green lanes for business travel. 

Singapore is now open to the idea of leisure travel bubbles and replacing 14-day quarantine requirements — which as Mr Ong noted deter most travellers — with a rigorous testing regime.

The question now becomes which country will be the first to forge a leisure green lane with Singapore.

There are several possibilities but Maldives makes the most sense as it provides an ideal pilot programme given the size of the country and type of travel.

Maldives is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean with over 150 resort islands. Each island has only one resort, making it a much safer destination in a pandemic environment than others.

Even in normal times, tourists do not hop between resorts or islands and few bother visiting the capital Male, which is its own island and where most of the local population lives.

After landing, tourists go directly to their resorts and stay there for their entire stay. Excursions consist of boat trips for snorkelling, diving and fishing that involve only guests from their resort.

Several Maldivian resorts could be made exclusive for Singapore residents, resulting in a sealed bubble without tourists from other countries.

There would be exposure to staff but a strict testing regime for both guests and employees would significantly reduce any risk. Maldives has reported about 6,000 Covid-19 cases and over 20 deaths since March but most of the islands do not have any recent cases.

There is still a risk associated with any resumption of international travel. However, the leisure green lane concept Singapore is considering can sufficiently manage this risk with Covid-19 testing and strict protocols.

A leisure green lane with Maldives would be of much lower risk compared with any other country, as those would inevitably include some mixing with other tourists.

For example, any of the typical island destinations in Southeast Asia — Bali, Boracay, Langkawi, Phu Quoc, Phuket and Samui — have hundreds of resorts with tourists typically leaving their resorts for meals and excursions.

Requiring tourists to stay at these resorts for the duration of their holidays would be hard to enforce.

Some of these destinations and their countries could become leisure green lanes later but starting with Maldives represents the best and safest choice.

Unlike most other countries in Asia, Maldives has already reopened its borders, making an agreement with Singapore relatively easy to forge.

Tourism resumed in Maldives on July 15 and 58 resorts are now open, providing over 7,000 rooms, according to Maldives Ministry of Tourism data. Another 12 resorts have been approved to open by early September.

Currently, Maldives is only hosting tourists from Europe and the Middle East, but occupancy rates remain low, providing more than enough hotel rooms for a potential Singapore bubble.

Maldives would be receptive to a travel bubble with Singapore (and other Asian countries) given its heavy reliance on tourism, which accounts for nearly a third of its gross domestic product.

Several resorts would be keen to open exclusively to the Singapore market given the obvious boost in business it would generate and also put in place measures required to support a safe and sealed travel programme.

Singapore-based airlines would be very supportive too. Prior to Covid-19, there were 16 weekly flights from Singapore to Maldives, including seven by Singapore Airlines and nine by its regional subsidiary SilkAir.

A green lane arrangement could result in more flights during the pandemic by both SIA and SilkAir as well as possibly budget airlines Scoot and Jetstar Asia.

Scoot served Maldives until October 2019, when SIA Group decided to transfer Scoot’s flights to SilkAir as part of a route consolidation initiative. Jetstar Asia has never served Maldives but would likely be eager to launch service to any leisure market that opens up under new travel bubble arrangements.

Prior to Covid-19, all Singapore-Maldives flights landed at Velana International Airport, which is located on its own island next to Male.

However, a new route from Singapore to the Maldives’ second international airport, located at Gan around 500km to the south of Male, would also be viable under a travel bubble.

Gan is more accessible to several resorts located in the southern part of Maldives that now can only be reached from Singapore via a domestic flight after landing in Male.

While domestic flights can be considered, limiting the safe travel programme to resorts that can be accessed by boat from Velana Airport or Gan Airport would be a more prudent option.

There would be huge pent-up demand for holidays in Maldives as Singapore residents have not been able to travel anywhere for several months.

Unlike nearly every other country in Asia Pacific, Singapore has no domestic travel market, limiting local tourism to staycations.

Opening up a leisure green lane with Maldives would result in a morale boost for Singapore travellers.

Depending on their Covid-19 situation, other leisure markets could open up subsequently and this is important as Maldives is not big enough to accommodate all the demand and is also a costly destination.

However, quick implementation of an initial destination would provide an initial glimmer of hope for Singapore residents as well as its airlines and travel agents.

A leisure travel bubble between Singapore and Maldives could potentially support 500 passengers per day. This would likely require three flights per day.

The impact on passenger traffic at Changi Airport would not be huge as 500 passengers per day in each direction would generate only 30,000 passengers per month.

However, 30,000 is significant in the current environment as it would boost Changi’s traffic by about 50 per cent. Changi is now averaging about 2,000 passengers per day compared to nearly 200,000 prior to Covid-19.

Green lanes with larger markets — such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand or Vietnam — would have a much larger impact. 

However, establishing green lanes with these countries would take longer as most are not yet ready. Singapore will also be understandably cautious about the potential risk of imported Covid-19 infections under a high volume leisure travel scenario.

Maldives represents a start and provides an ideal testing ground for a concept that can be gradually expanded, enabling Changi and SIA to gradually recover from the current 99 per cent reduction in passenger traffic.

Note: Brendan Sobie is the founder of Singapore-based independent aviation consulting and analysis firm Sobie Aviation. He was previously chief analyst for Capa – Centre for Aviation. This op-ed was originally published on Todayonline.com (the original article can be found here).

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