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Coronavirus: passengers’ hopes dashed as Hong Kong-Singapore air travel bubble put on hold after Covid-19 surge

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 22/11/2020 Danny Lee, Dewey Sim and Rachel Yeo
a large ship in a body of water: There will be no quarantine-free travel to Singapore from Hong Kong, or vice versa, for at least two weeks. Photo: AFP There will be no quarantine-free travel to Singapore from Hong Kong, or vice versa, for at least two weeks. Photo: AFP

Travel plans ruined and trips left unfulfilled. The disappointment was palpable for the first passengers getting ready to fly between Hong Kong and Singapore under a quarantine-free air travel bubble after the scheme was put on hold for two weeks.

The Hong Kong government announced the postponement on Saturday, after a surge in untraceable Covid-19 cases, in what is being seen as the city's fourth wave of coronavirus.

Commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah was non-committal about establishing a new launch date, which would depend on the infection picture improving.

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Desalyn Bowyer, 40, and her fiance Phil Mitchell, 44, were scheduled to fly out of Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific flight 759 at 10am on Sunday, the planned launch day of the bubble.

Mitchell has not left Hong Kong since January, and Bowyer since March, and both were excited about a change of scene.

a couple of people posing for the camera: Phil Mitchell and Desalyn Bowyer were due to fly to Singapore on Sunday. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post Phil Mitchell and Desalyn Bowyer were due to fly to Singapore on Sunday. Photo: Handout

"We're devastated in every way possible," said Bowyer, whose flight costs would be refunded as the rescheduling did not match her future travel plans. The couple paid HK$4,300 (US$555) a piece for tickets, a similar amount for Covid-19 tests and a further HK$4,800 for a hotel.

Bowyer had planned the Singapore trip with a view to potentially relocating there, so she was "banking on it rather than just getting on a plane and getting away for a few days".

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Cynthia Ang, a 29-year-old Singaporean lawyer, was supposed to head back to Hong Kong, where she is based, for urgent work matters on Sunday. But her Singapore Airlines (SIA) bubble flight, for which she paid about S$400 (US$298), was cancelled. The airline is offering refunds to affected travellers.

"I'm not sure what to do now. I have to check with my law firm and boss to see how it goes. It's quite frustrating (that SIA) is just offering us a refund rather than reschedule the flight," she said.

But Singaporean Jason Huan, who paid S$1,100 for a return trip to Hong Kong, said he felt indifferent about the postponement, given he bought a ticket which allowed him to change his flight without incurring a fee.

a person standing in front of water: Hong Kong has reported a surge in coronavirus cases. Photo: Winson Wong © Provided by South China Morning Post Hong Kong has reported a surge in coronavirus cases. Photo: Winson Wong

"It would have been a nice getaway if everything went well, but I'm glad the situation is being closely monitored. It would have been worse if the cases spiked during my time there," he said.

Cathay Pacific said it was "very sorry for this unexpected change" to flights.

Hong Kong's flag carrier was offering refunds, travel vouchers for future flights or a change to new flights to Singapore - which would still require quarantine. The airline said it planned to operate non-bubble flights on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays over the next two weeks.

"Both governments were acting in the best interest of everyone," said Subhas Menon, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, a trade body. He said the authorities had shown some consistency in sticking to the rules that established and guided the travel bubble.

"We don't want what happened in Europe and started (spreading the virus) after a few weeks, they had to U-turn and impose quarantine, go back to square one and there is no travel. We don't want that to happen here," he said.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Edward Yau was non-committal about establishing a new launch date. Photo: Jonathan Wong © Provided by South China Morning Post Edward Yau was non-committal about establishing a new launch date. Photo: Jonathan Wong

For Cathay and SIA, pushed deep into financial trouble by the ongoing Covid-19 chaos, the postponement was yet another blow. Neither airline has a domestic service and with borders closed, most of their international flights have been cancelled and planes grounded.

In Hong Kong, tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said he was disappointed the bubble had been postponed and was concerned travel would not see an uptick over the next month.

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"We're unsure if the Covid-19 situation in both places will be considered safe in two weeks," he said. "There could be more delays for the travel bubble."

Yiu said the postponement could "severely set back" plans to resume cross-border travel with mainland China as well.

"A lot of travel agents and hotels were looking forward to the success of the air travel bubble as a gauge on recovery," he said. "We'll have to bear the brunt a bit longer."

Additional reporting by Laura Westbrook and Kathleen Magramo

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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