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A Better Travel Bubble Lies in these Island Paradises

A Better Travel Bubble Lies in these Island Paradises

Tuesday, 24 November, 2020 - 07:45

The last-minute decision by Hong Kong and Singapore to pause their planned travel bubble highlights the precariousness of unfettered cross-border movement with Covid-19 still looming and able to spike, even in places that have done relatively well. Yet allowing people to voyage abroad without quarantine retains merit if done between the right territories.

Enter two entirely different places. Taiwan hadn’t recorded a local infection for 225 days as of Monday, among the longest Covid-free streaks anywhere. It’s a feat made more remarkable by the fact that the population is a not-insignificant 23 million. And though New Zealand and its 4.8 million people haven’t fared quite as well, the remote nation is a world leader in handling the pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s deft willingness to quickly implement lockdowns when new cases warrant is worthy of the economic benefit that even a limited resumption of free travel might bring. Taiwan deserves reward for leadership in detecting and handling the pandemic, and has won increasing praise from an international political system that still keeps it largely frozen out.

Travel bubbles have proven a tricky concept since being floated as a workaround for the battered global aviation and leisure industry. The fact is, they’re at the whim of the virus. Asia’s pre-eminent global financial centers have been keen to move ahead with the first one, comforted by Singapore not having a local case since Nov. 11. Those plans were halted over the weekend, before the first plane could fly, after Hong Kong cases spiked. New Zealand and Australia would seem a natural fit for their own corridor, but a recent flare-up in the state of South Australia highlights the ongoing gamble.

As my colleague Daniel Moss noted Monday, governments are right to debate the balance between economic growth and the rates of infection considered tolerable. Ardern’s landslide re-election in October and the continued popularity of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen gives both leaders the political capital to take the managed risk.

Both countries prove that democracies taking quick, rational action can mitigate the financial cost of restricted travel and trade. Taiwan is among the few economies expected to grow this year. An 8% rise in New Zealand retail sales for the third quarter compared to the previous year indicates the upsides that can come from strict early action.

There’s been talk of a Taiwan-New Zealand plan dating back to at least May, but technical standards including procedures for tracking, tracing, and sharing information remain among the outstanding challenges, Taiwan officials have told me. There’s a sense, at least in Taiwan, that mutual interest remains in moving forward.

Allowing Taiwan’s well-heeled travelers to fly to the Land of the Long White Cloud for the southern hemisphere summer would be an immediate shot in the arm for New Zealand’s economy. International tourism accounts for more than 20% of exports of goods and services and 5.8% of gross domestic product. An additional 4% of GDP comes from supporting industries, while the sector accounts for around 8.4% of the employed workforce.

Taiwan’s economy depends less on tourism, but it’s been working hard to make Ilha Formosa a viable destination. The government has spent years promoting Taiwanese food, culture and scenery to travelers from Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia to offset a decline in mainland tourists caused by frosty ties between Taipei and Beijing. Overall visitor numbers climbed to a record last year.

A bigger benefit to Taiwan, though, would be in moral support from having a respected partner sign on to a travel bubble. Like most nations, New Zealand doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan. But it’s been a strong friend, one of the few countries to have signed a free-trade agreement with Taipei. Earlier this year, New Zealand was a vocal proponent of Taiwan gaining a role at the World Health Organization, meeting vociferous opposition from Beijing.

By opening travel ties, Ardern’s government could send a clear signal that it won’t be bullied, while still maintaining a public posture of accepting a one-China policy. Quarantine-free entry into New Zealand could be seen as a rational decision based on sound public-health and economic principles.

It would also show the role of smaller powers in shaping the global political economy at a time when the US and China seem intent on carving it up into their own spheres of influence. Once successfully implemented, Taipei and Wellington could bring other successful pandemic-handlers into the mix.

Vietnam would be one such candidate. With around only 1,300 cases from a population of 95 million, the Southeast Asian nation has a lower rate than even Taiwan.

Ardern, Tsai and any who join them would be able to show the advantages of sound rational policymaking over the denial and populism rising elsewhere. They could give the world some visible hope of normalcy in the long months before a vaccine becomes widely available.

Halting the first travel bubble before it ever got going shows just how challenging such a move truly is. But if there are any leaders in the world that could pull this off, it’s these two democratically elected women.


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