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Coronavirus brought the travel industry to a standstill with breakneck speed. But as Australians and New Zealanders have been warned time and time again, the recovery will be the opposite — painfully slow.
The world we left behind when the pandemic was declared in February is a long way off.
This week, sobering analysis from the International Air Transport Association warned air traffic may not return to its pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023 as international travel bans and restrictions drag out the recovery.
As Australians and New Zealanders emerge from the grips of Covid-19, that doesn’t mean overseas destinations will be safe and ready for our return. Even within Australia there’s a lack of consensus on when state and territory borders should reopen.
But there’s a new concept, unheard of before coronavirus, that may be our new normal in the meantime.
The term “travel bubble” has been bandied about in the past month as governments here and abroad consider ways to gently resume travel and restart tourism industries.
Rather than busting open the travel floodgates and risking a transmission explosion, this staggered approach identifies and preserves safe travel zones where the virus risk is low — and it’s likely to be our best bet for a holiday anytime soon.
The concept has gained ground globally since Australia and New Zealand floated the idea of a trans-Tasman travel bubble last month, amid pleasing results in both nations’ fights against Covid-19.
The idea would allow travel to resume between only Australia and New Zealand, which is likely to be our first port for overseas holidays.
It was discussed when Jacinda Ardern met with Australia’s National Cabinet last week, however neither government has made it an immediate priority.
“At some point, both Australia and New Zealand will start connecting with the rest of the world again,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.
“The most obvious place for that to start is between Australia and New Zealand but that’s not something that’s about to start next week,” he said, adding it was still “some time away”.
Now there is talk Australia and New Zealand’s travel bubble should swell to include many Pacific neighbours, which have avoided or contained outbreaks of Covid-19 and rely on tourism income from Aussie and Kiwi holiday-makers.
Michael Rose, research fellow and anthropologist from the Australian National University, supported the idea for a Pacific travel bubble in a piece for The Guardian.
“Aside from giving real substance to Canberra’s talk of a ‘step-up’ in the region, if managed carefully, medically there is little to lose and economically there is much to gain from this approach,” he said, saying the impact on tourism in these idyllic destinations had been “devastating”.
“Expanding a potential trans-Tasman bubble to the Pacific could help to stop its tourist industry from withering on the vine,” he wrote.
“Vanuatu, Fiji, Palau and the Cook Islands are all friends who depend upon Australian and New Zealand visitors for a substantial part of their economy, and we should not be leaving them out to dry now.”
While the concept may still be a hypothetical here, in northern Europe, a travel bubble has just become reality.
The Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia opened borders to each other at midnight on Friday, local time, creating the first “travel bubble” within the European Union.
Citizens from the three neighbouring countries will be able to travel freely between them again, however anyone visiting from outside the bubble will have to self-isolate for 14 days.
The bubble went ahead after infection rates in the three countries “slowed to a trickle,” Reuters reported.
“The Baltic Travel Bubble is an opportunity for businesses to reopen, and a glimmer of hope for the people that life is getting back to normal,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said.
While Poland and Finland have loosened travel restrictions with Estonia and Lithuania respectively, neither feel ready to join the Baltic bubble yet.
Meanwhile the European Commission is recommending a phased approach to resuming travel in the European Union, and suggests EU countries start by reopening borders to fellow nations with “similar risk profiles”. While some European countries, such as Spain and Italy, have been devastated by the virus, the impact has been much less severe in others, such as the Czech Republic and Greece.
Even Australia could be carved up in travel bubbles until full-blown domestic tourism resumes.
This week there were calls Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory could “break away” from the rest of the country and create a bubble to benefit business, including tourism.
Ian Kew from the Darwin Major Business Group told the NT News the two states and territory had dwindling numbers of active coronavirus cases and would benefit from working together — however he’s met resistance from the Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner.
“We are not opening our borders yet. The answer is no. I’m sorry, but it’s too early. It’s too risky,” Gunner said.
“We are the safest place in Australia because of our secure borders.
“And by being the safest place in Australia, our businesses can be the first to reopen and Territorians can be the first to get back to work.”
While travel bubbles may be seen a worthy compromise while the pandemic rages on, it does have some potential drawbacks.
A bubble could easily burst if a member country decided to open up to another jurisdiction where the virus risk was high, an editorial in the Financial Times noted. It also said bubbles of rich countries could have the effect of “exacerbating inequalities with poorer countries that are excluded”.
But if they’re shown to work, travel bubbles could, bit by bit, unlock the world.
“If New Zealand and Australia can show this can work, then it is likely to be adopted elsewhere,” said Chris Roberts, the chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, the BBC reported.
“It could be 12 to 18 months before we return to open borders.”