To keep tourism afloat during the pandemic, some countries formed travel alliances with their neighbours. At the end of the northern summer, the experiment has had mixed results.

An Australia-New Zealand travel bubble, proposed in May, would have allowed citizens of each country to travel to the other without quarantine or a test. The rise in coronavirus cases particularly in Victoria has put the plan on hold.

One of the strategies for keeping international travel afloat during the pandemic was the creation of “travel bubbles” alliances between neighbouring nations with low infection rates that would allow travellers from those countries to freely visit.

But as the summer draws to a close and infections continue to pop up, it appears that, in many places, the travel bubble has burst.

There was a lot riding on the alliances. The pause on international tourism doesn’t just spoil family vacations; it affects the global economy profoundly. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that about one in 10 jobs are related to tourism and travel. For popular destinations like Greece, where the tourism sector is responsible for about 40 per cent of jobs, the effect is even more significant.

Where have the bubbles burst?

In May, New Zealand and Australia gathered attention when they announced a plan to create one of the first travel partnerships during the pandemic. The “Trans-Tasman bubble” would allow citizens of Australia and New Zealand to travel to the other without quarantine or a test. The hope was to enact it by early September, but in early August, a coronavirus outbreak in Victoria put those plans on hold.

For a while, Europe seemed to represent the best hope for getting tourism going, and it began with the bubble concept. On May 15, the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania created the first travel bubble in Europe; later that month, Hungary and Slovenia agreed that their citizens could continue to travel between the two countries.

Soon, much of Europe became a giant bubble. The European Commission created “Re-open EU,” a site listing travel rules within European countries. Each member country began easing restrictions at its own pace. Italy and Germany for example opened quickly to travellers arriving from inside the European Union or the border-free Schengen zone. Britain also began opening to its neighbours.

The welcome mat was not rolled out long, though. Flare-ups of the virus caused borders to shut on short notice, disrupting travellers’ plans. In late July, Britain abruptly announced that traveller’s returning from Spain would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, just a few weeks after it had opened restriction-free travel to the country. In mid-August, British vacationers in France had to either rush home to beat newly announced restrictions or face two weeks of quarantine when they returned.

Asia, too, has had its burst travel bubbles. Thailand had hoped to invite travellers from nearby countries with low virus rates, such as Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, to visit without requiring self-quarantines on arrival. New waves of the virus cancelled those plans.

While some countries jointly announced agreed-upon travel bubbles with neighbours, others created de facto ones by publishing lists of which nearby countries’ residents were allowed in and under what circumstances.

In the United States, which accounts for about 25 per cent of the world’s cases, some states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have created their own bubbles, stipulating that traveller’s coming from a long list of states with a seven-day rolling average of positive tests greater than 10 per cent, or number of positive cases over 10 per 100,000 residents, self-isolate on arrival for 14 days.

The idea of bubbles created between neighbouring countries has given way in recent months to “travel corridors” and safelists, sets of countries and territories around the world whose residents, depending on their destinations, don’t have to self-isolate unless they are showing symptoms of the virus or have recently been exposed.

For example, Britain’s website, which lists more than 60 countries and territories from which travellers can visit without self-isolating, removed Croatia and Austria from that list and added Portugal.

The sites also list countries’ virus-testing requirements for travellers. Some nations recommend arriving with evidence of a negative result and offer tests at the airport or 14-day self-quarantines as an alternative. Others, like the United States, which recently dropped its advice that newly arrived travellers quarantine for two weeks, do not require testing to enter the country.

Rather than prohibit all travellers from higher-risk countries, Greece recently began requiring that people entering from a specified list of locations arrive with a negative test result for Covid-19, performed within three days of their entry.

Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic travellers carrying the virus can inadvertently bring it into an area undetected and cause an outbreak for which there is no reliable treatment. We all want to travel again in a safe way, but unfortunately, the approaches taken by the mentioned countries so far have not worked.

What’s next?

Most countries now realize that they cannot plan too far in advance, things can change in a matter of hours. Travellers can continue to minimize risk to themselves and others with masks, hand-washing and social distancing, however, it seems that at this point we cannot completely eliminate the risk and we need to learn to live with it.

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