Predicting Singapore’s next travel bubble

Singapore and Hong Kong recently announced what’s claimed to be the world’s first air travel bubble, meaning a controlled two-way corridor between largely coronavirus-free territories, with travel allowed for any reason and no quarantine required on either side. Here’s some speculation about what other countries could follow.

Don’t call us, we’ll call you

There are four countries that Singapore has unilaterally opened its borders to. However, none have yet to return the favor and none seem likely to anytime soon.

  • Brunei is the only one of the four allows any Singaporeans in at the moment, with a Green Lane for business and official travellers only, but they show no sign of easing up to tourists. Then again, the famously dull Abode of Peace is not too high on anybody’s bucket list.
  • New Zealand is closed to all non-residents, full stop. They’ve also made it clear that Australia will be the first cab off the rank if they do open up, but for time being it’s still returning residents only and they need to do a 14-day quarantine too.
  • Vietnam recently announced its first business-only green lane with Japan. Singapore may follow, but tourism is unlikely to come anytime soon.
  • Australia has been in talks with Singapore for a while, although the outbreak in Victoria put everything on hold. With that seemingly under control, things are moving forward again and the country recently welcomed its first quarantine-free arrivals from New Zealand. They’ve been careful to tamp down expectations though, and for time being it looks more likely that any relaxation would involve shorter/at-home quarantine, not a free-for-all.

The less naughty club

Another three essentially COVID-free regions, all in greater China, are considered safe enough by Singapore to require only a 7-day Stay Home Notice (SHN), instead of a full quarantine. My two cents: Singapore’s next bubble destination is quite likely to come from this group.

  • Macau was very successful at containing COVID, and has thus been very careful at reopening, currently permitting some travel from nearby Guangdong but remaining closed to the rest of China and the world, including Hong Kong. If they choose to reopen to HK, and discussions are already well underway, it’s likely Singapore will follow.
  • Mainland China has a business Green Lane with Singapore, but has yet to open to general travel from anywhere. HK and Macau will both need to come first before Singapore will be on the agenda.
  • Taiwan is planning to open its very first two-way bubble with the tiny (and COVID-free) island nation of Palau. If this works out, Singapore could follow, although you’d expect a business-only channel first. However, politics complicates things: Palau is one of the few nations that formally recognise Taiwan, but Singapore is not, and this is likely why Hong Kong hasn’t opened up to Taiwan either.

There is one more country on the 7-day list, although it remains to been for how long:

  • Malaysia, Singapore’s next door neighbour, was an early COVID success story and an obvious candidate for opening up. However, in early October things started going pear-shaped, with more and more local clusters popping up. The state of Sabah has already been put on full quarantine measures, and if things don’t improve soon the rest of the country may follow.

The fallen angel club

Two countries were previously on the 7-day list for other travellers, but have been relegated back into Division 14. (The third was Hong Kong, but they were rehabilitated on October 12.)

  • Japan remains a statistical anomaly, winding back a spike in August but still reporting hundreds of new cases daily.
  • South Korea has contained several outbreaks, but continues to struggle with low but persistent community transmission.

Both countries were popular tourist destinations for Singaporeans, and both have business Green Lanes in place, but until they can get community transmission under control, they’re unlikely to be Singapore’s bubble list.

The wish list

Various other countries have been proposed as bubble candidates. None seem likely.

  • The Maldives, with its self-contained resort islands, has been touted as being suitable for a travel bubble: just dedicate a few islands for Singaporeans only! However, while the Maldives already has an open-door policy to the world, they’ve paid the price with some of the highest per-capita COVID rates in the world, and it’s difficult to see what Singapore would get out of this.
  • Thailand has been remarkably successful at containing COVID, but they’ve kept their doors firmly locked to the outside world — you can’t even fly to or from the country on anything except government charters. There are no Green Lane arrangements, the Special Tourist Visa for hardy tourists willing to endure 14 days of quarantine was a spectacular flop, and now the shambolic military junta that runs the place is busy dealing with what’s looking more and more like a potential revolution.
  • Thailand’s COVID-free neighbours Cambodia and Laos have similarly restrictive policies, with tourist visas no longer issued and 14-day quarantines mandatory. It’s unlikely either would open to Singapore before Thailand or China.
  • Fellow air hub Qatar seems to be recovering well from a migrant dorm-driven outbreak even worse than Singapore’s, but driving cases down to zero is still a ways off and Singapore is a marginal trading partner at best.

And that’s pretty much it. Indonesia, Philippines, India, Europe, the Middle East, the USA etc are all dealing with what can only be described as raging epidemics, none of which look likely to be contained before vaccination becomes widespread. And while there are some COVID-free Pacific island states (Palau, Fiji, Vanuatu, etc), none have flights to Singapore.

Back in the dim antiquity of March 2020, I glumly predicted that the world would fragment into COVID-free islands in a sea of contagion. I was lucky to find myself on one of these islands, but it looks like there’s not going to be a whole lot of sailing between them anytime soon.

Islands in the sea: A simple model of a world with endemic coronavirus

TL;DR: The world is likely to soon be an archipelago of coronavirus-free islands in a sea of infection, and will remain so until an effective vaccine or treatment is globally available.

First up, a disclaimer: I’m not recommending any particular course of action, since I don’t claim to have the expertise to do so.  This is based entirely on analysis of the second-order effects of actions already being taken around the world today.

Creating islands

China has demonstrated to the world a simple and brutal but seemingly effective strategy to suppress the coronavirus pandemic. Isolate people in small groups, wait out the incubation period while removing the sick, repeat until everybody is healthy or dead.


Once you have created a coronavirus-free space, you also need to regulate entry to it to ensure no new carriers slip in.   Basically the same approach applies here as well: create an “airlock” by strict quarantine of all would-be entrants for 14 days, after which the healthy can enter.

Stating this in a few sentences is easy.  Actually implementing it with no gaps, meaning every local transmission and every infected visitor is successfully caught and quarantined, is fiendishly difficult, and many will try but fail.  If so, the world can soon be split in two:

  1. Islands, where local transmission of coronavirus is not present and there are strict entry controls to keep it that way.
  2. The rest of the world, or the sea, where coronavirus either is spreading locally or can be reintroduced at any time due to lack of effective controls on population movement internally or externally.

It’s important to note that islands need not be entire countries. A reverse quarantine zone, intended to keep disease outcan be implemented by any polity with control over its territory and the ability to keep out outsiders, be it a state, a province, a city, a farming village or a mountain cabin full of preppers.

So what?

If this pans out, the implications for the next year or two are enormous and complex, but we can draw a few straightforward conclusions:

  • Travel will remain extremely restricted.  Islands, paranoid about becoming infected, will be slow and cautious about opening up to other islands, hostile to anybody entering from the sea, and unwilling to send anybody into the sea themselves.  Would-be islands, trying to prevent new carriers from entering, will also restrict travel and apply quarantine measures.  Truly dysfunctional governments will be unable to restrict travel in or out, but their population will have other priorities.
  • Poor countries are likelier to end up under water.  If they lack the ability to enforce population isolation, keep their borders locked down, detect the inevitable slip-ups and track down their contacts fast, they will not be able to stop transmission.  Premature declarations of victory, followed by lapses back into the sea of community transmission, are likely.
  • Larger nation states may fragment.  If a country-level island is not possible, smaller entities may try to form their own.  For example, the Australian island state of Tasmania has already requiring all arrivals even from the rest of Australia to quarantine for 14 days.
  • Herd immunity in the sea will not end travel restrictions.  The population of the islands is not immune, so they will continue to heavily restrict travel from the outside.
  • Only universal vaccination or an effective early-stage cure will dry up the sea.  These are the only controlled ways to either bring immunity to the islands, or make the risk of getting sick tolerable. Even after islands vaccinate their own, they will continue to restrict travel from infected zones, because no vaccine is perfect or available to all.