As summer creeps closer and the coronavirus pandemic rages on, people are accepting the reality that vacations and travel as we knew it are not happening this year.
Would-be tourists with wanderlust are dreaming about travel returning to normal, but so are businesses. The U.N. World Tourism Organization estimates that international tourism could decline by up to 80 percent this year over 2019, putting at least 100 million jobs at risk.
While most people are sheltering in place and many countries have closed their borders to prevent the spread of the virus, some essential travel has been allowed. People travel for family emergencies, for instance, while doctors and nurses head to hotspots to help treat those in need.
For those who have embarked on international travel, it typically requires two weeks of self-isolation to see if any coronavirus symptoms appear. While that works for people returning home or staying in a destination long-term, spending 14 days inside is not an ideal vacation for most travelers.
There is one glimmer of hope: travel bubbles.
What is a “travel bubble?”
Travel bubbles, also called travel bridges or corona corridors, do away with that waiting period for a select group of travelers from certain countries where the coronavirus has been contained. “In a ‘travel bubble’ a set of countries agree to open their borders to each other, but keep borders to all other countries closed. So people can move freely within the bubble, but cannot enter from the outside,” says Per Block, an Oxford University researcher in social mobility and methodology. “The idea is to allow people additional freedom without causing additional harm.” Travel bubbles are an extension of one of Block’s research specialties —social bubbles, where people expand their quarantine zones to include more people they consider safe. Block is one of the authors of an Oxford study that suggests social bubbles could be an effective strategy to alleviating coronavirus isolation, although the findings have not yet been peer-reviewed.
How does it work?
Travel bubbles do require a certain amount of faith and trust in partner countries and their ability to contain the virus, including widespread testing, contact tracing and effective quarantining. That’s why Block notes that the easiest time to form a bubble “is when two countries have no more cases” and thus, very low risk in allowing travelers from the other country. Australia and New Zealand, for instance, are some of the nations close to coming to such an agreement.
The two nations both managed to contain the spread of COVID-19 within their countries, after almost completely shutting their borders in March. As both countries appear to have successfully brought their coronavirus outbreaks under control (currently Australia has just 15 new cases; New Zealand has zero, per Google’s virus tracker) and so long as new infection numbers remain near zero, politicians are weighing options to safely ease open the border, just a little. In late April, they announced plans to form a travel bubble to allow residents to fly back and forth between the countries, sans quarantine; the countries are still determining when to implement it. “If there is any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that's New Zealand," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last month.
Of course, zero transmitted cases is unlikely at this point in the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean low-risk travel has to wait. “A travel bubble can also make sense if neighboring countries have a similar number of cases and respond in the same way to the pandemic,” says Block. “In that case, for neither country there is a need to close the border to ‘protect’ their citizens from a higher incidence of cases due to travelers from another country.”
What are the economic benefits of a travel bubble?
A travel bubble would help both countries’ flagging tourism industries. As CNN points out, Australians make up almost 40 percent of international arrivals to New Zealand, with tourism being that country's biggest export industry. Chris Roberts, chief executive of New Zealand's tourist board Tourism Industry Aotearoa, told Justin Harper at the BBC that if the correct health safeguards are followed and the technology is in place, travel bubbles could be an effective means to opening up the country and could serve as a model for other countries to follow. “If New Zealand and Australia can show this can work, then it is likely to be adopted elsewhere,” he said, noting that otherwise “it could be 12 to 18 months before we return to open borders.”
If New Zealand can make their travel bubble work with Australia and keep new infections at zero, which appears to be their bar, they may expand the bubble to include other countries that are effectively containing the virus, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, per the BBC. Fiji and other Pacific Island nations have also suggested they are open to joining in any expanded trans-Tasman bubble. Singapore may be in the mix, too, although they have said their borders will stay closed until a vaccine is found.
What other countries are considering bubbles?
The prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand have stated they will not open their borders “until it is safe to do so,” which may not be for months. Meanwhile, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania opened their borders to one another on May 15. It’s a move that Lithuania's Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis called "a glimmer of hope for the people that life is getting back to normal" in a statement, reported by the BBC. While citizens and residents can move freely between the three nations, anyone arriving from outside the zone will have to continue to self-isolate for 14 days.
If the virus levels stay low, Finland and Poland may be next to join the Baltic travel bubble, the BBC reports. Elsewhere in the European Union, France is allowing people traveling from other EU countries to skip the 14-day quarantine requirement, the editorial board at the Financial Times writes.
Czechia plans to open its borders on June 8 to residents of countries that are deemed safe, most likely Austria, Slovakia and Croatia. The specifics of that opening are still to be determined, as currently even Czech residents returning home from abroad must show a negative test result or quarantine on arrival, Reuters reports.
Germany is also planning to open its borders with France, Austria and Switzerland on June 15, so long as virus infection levels remain manageable. Other neighboring groups of countries, Austria, Czechia, Denmark, Greece, and even the non-EU country of Israel have been in talks to create a similar bloc, per the Wall Street Journal. While the EU has indicated it wants to establish universal criteria and standards before allowing free movement within the bloc, which would allow all members to lift their restrictions at once, things seem to be moving piecemeal with neighboring nations banding together. It’s a move that Block thinks makes sense. “This is very intuitive, because borders are more relevant for humans than for viruses,” says Block. “If you live in Germany near the Swiss border, why should you be forbidden to travel five miles to Switzerland but be allowed to travel 500 miles to the north of Germany if the policies for what you can or cannot do are the same in all places?”
In Asia, Beijing is considering expanding its “travel bubble” covering mainland China to include Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau as well as South Korea, the Asia Times reported. Ralph Jennings at Voice of America notes, Hong Kong is reportedly weighing opening a bubble with Macau, a popular recreation destination located just an hour away. Taiwan is also reportedly mulling opening travel to “low-risk” countries and exempting their visitors from 14-day quarantines. Chiu Cheng-hsun, a deputy director of Chang Gung Memorial Hospital near Taipei, told Voice of America, that to make such an arrangement work, visitors would be asked to take their temperatures daily and report any suspicious symptoms. Vietnam and Thailand are also reportedly considering creating a travel corridor over the next few months, Julia Hollingsworth and Kocha Olarn at CNN write.
Unfortunately for travelers coming from the U.S., the lack of unified response to the virus, combined with the low rates of testing and contact tracing, make it unlikely that the U.S. will be invited into a travel bubble any time soon.