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Are we ready for ASEAN travel balloon?

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A traditional Thai statue wears a face mask as a campaign for travellers to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the departure terminal of Suvarnabhumi International Airport in the Thai capital Bangkok on December 18. AFP

Are we ready for ASEAN travel balloon?

Indonesia has the highest number of Covid-19 infections in ASEAN, but remains the only country in the region that has resisted a general lockdown. Air travel, however, remains highly restrictive, like with other ASEAN countries.

With a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon, should Indonesia and other ASEAN countries wait before opening borders? Waiting could end up being costly because turning vaccines into vaccinations to achieve herd immunity will take time. Reaching herd immunity may be required before allowing quarantine-free travel because those vaccinated may still be infectious, despite being immune from the disease. Even those vaccinated may pass on the infection to those who have not, who may then acquire the disease.

The wait for the vaccine may be over, but Indonesia or ASEAN cannot afford to wait for it to work before opening borders. Before we achieve herd immunity, we should start working toward an ASEAN-wide travel bubble by expanding, upgrading and consolidating the plethora of unilateral and bilateral travel arrangements that currently operate in the region.

Travel corridors or “green lanes” are the most common in ASEAN, which allow reciprocal travel with testing but without quarantine for select groups like businessmen under strict conditions, such as pre-arranged itineraries.

To have a significant impact on the economy, however, air travel passes unilaterally extend these terms to all travelers. In ASEAN, Singapore has been leading the effort in pursuing air travel passes with partners that have controlled community transmission, like Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam. More is required.

The economic benefits of travel passes could be increased if the partner would reciprocate to create a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble. For this to happen, perceptions of health risks associated with opening borders need to converge across countries. Some governments need to overcome an inherent bias against opening borders. That is, even when differences in infection rates suggest that inter-country movement is less risky than intra-country movement, borders remain mostly closed while easing of domestic movement continues.

The factors underlying this bias need to be addressed before travel corridors can be upgraded to travel passes, and then travel bubbles.

After that, consolidating these bilateral arrangements into a regional one – a travel balloon – could be pursued. For instance, the Singapore-Vietnam or Singapore-Brunei travel pass, once successfully upgraded to a bubble, could be pilot-tested to include other countries with similar infection rates.

A good start would be to consolidate the two, to allow travel between the spokes, Brunei and Vietnam, as well as with the hub, Singapore, is quarantine-free. It could then be progressively expanded to include Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, for instance. Such an expanded travel bubble, or travel balloon, involving up to six ASEAN countries that currently have controlled community transmission could magnify the economic benefits without significantly raising health risks, if implemented according to a plan.

The plan should involve harmonisation of Covid-19 screening and quarantine protocols to preserve the integrity of the risk mitigation controls across countries, while facilitating seamless movement to reap maximum benefits from the increase in scale.

Protocols such as exemption of quarantine should be mutually recognised across participating countries to avoid duplication and to encourage movement between them. Mutual recognition should increase both intra and extra regional flows.

An ASEAN-wide travel balloon covering all 10 members is unlikely at this stage because of significant differences in infection rates. It is unlikely that countries that have controlled community transmission will open-up to countries like Indonesia that have not.

The ASEAN countries that have higher infection rates could, however, choose to recognise the quarantine observed within the six-country travel balloon, even if reciprocity is denied them. That is, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines could participate by forming air travel passes with the countries in the travel balloon.

Even without reciprocity, these four countries could benefit economically because they would receive a larger number of travelers on a relatively safe basis through the one-way arrangement. But first they must be convinced that these benefits are there to be had on a relatively safe basis.

The agreement should include an open accession clause, which would allow new members like Indonesia to join if health conditions improve to meet those specified in the agreement. Similarly, the agreement should enable the suspension of members should health conditions deteriorate to an extent deemed unsafe for quarantine-free travel. The recent deferment of the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble attests to the ability of such arrangements to have built-in safety clauses that kick-in as soon as circumstances warrant.

Once set up, the institutional mechanism can help deal with emerging issues, such as vaccinations, on a consistent basis. While countries may differ in terms of how and when they choose to recognise vaccinations, let alone different vaccines, these issues need to be addressed in a way that does not deter travel in the short term, while harmonisation is pursued to narrow differences in the longer term. A properly designed travel balloon could do that.

At the recently concluded ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, ASEAN leaders recognised the potential that travel bubbles present in safely opening borders to promote regional economic recovery. A cautious and incremental approach in moving toward an ASEAN travel balloon can give a fillip to economic growth, yet have enough safeguards that will kick in should infections head north again.

Jayant Menon is visiting senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and former lead economist of the Asian Development Bank



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