It seems a great idea to reconnect countries which have had a good level of success in controlling the coronavirus pandemic domestically. Such travel bubbles or tunnels could in theory be used to kickstart commerce and tourism between partner countries. But no deal has yet seen the light of day.
The term appears to have originated in the Australian government which suggested in May an agreement between that country and neighboring New Zealand. It has also cropped up in the context of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia which are also proximate as well as inter-dependent.
The Thai government has taken up the bubble idea with alacrity, but without a consensus what exactly the term means. The prime minister recently stated that foreign tourism would begin with a travel bubble between Thailand and countries such as Vietnam and China which had got a firm grip on the pesky virus.
The Thai tourist authority also weighed in with a suggestion that limited tours from favoured neighbors could fly into Bangkok but would be sent, without any stops, to the holiday destination which might well be a Thai island cut off from the mainland. It was also suggested that priority might be given to business travellers, supply chain coordinators and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) delegates.
The various announcements indicate that the Thai authorities are still exploring options rather than rolling out a planned policy. Thus a travel bubble ought to mean no hassle between those countries involved. But various Thai spokespeople have mentioned the ongoing need for a 14-day quarantine on arrival plus a file of documents which seem to include a pre-flight health certificate and hefty insurance premiums.
There is also still-mooted talk of requiring all foreigners entering the country to download an app to monitor their movements whilst enjoying their vacation. There is even discussion of introducing an immunity passport which China has already rolled out domestically to check on the health status of the individual. All citizens have their own QR code which changes colour dependent on health status and needs to be shown in many Chinese restaurants and malls.
In other words, the term travel bubble means not much until you know much more. As ever with state bureaucracies, the devil is in the detail. For the moment, the public at large must wait for a considered and clear approach to a very thorny set of issues.
The point to be taken on board by Europeans and Americans (amongst others) is that they do not in official Thai eyes hail from countries with a good track record in controlling the pandemic. Thus they are most unlikely to appear in any pilot entry schemes which the Thai government may eventually introduce within Asia. Exceptions may be made for special interest groups such as farang work permit holders, permanent residents and husbands of Thai wives currently stranded abroad. But there has been no indication of dates and regulations even for these groups, let alone the bulk of potential travellers without any special pleas to offer.
Mass foreign tourism is indeed a vital part of the Thai economy. But what is clear is the government’s intention to make health issues a priority and relax the immigration rules slowly and step by step. This is hardly surprising as almost 100 percent of recent coronavirus infection cases originated outside the country and were brought back by returning Thai nationals.
Farang living in Thailand and those impatient to vacation here – assuming they exist in sizeable numbers – are very distant from the welcome-all immigration policy of yesteryear which has seen foreign visitors (yes a lot of Chinese) soar to a total of nearly 40 million in 2019. But there is a growing consensus that the traveller of the future is going to need a lot more documentation than a passport and a visa. International travel in the 2020s could even become a privilege rather than a right. Best pray for an effective vaccine real soon.