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Travel bubble: searches for Hong Kong-Singapore flights jump 400 per cent, as prices for advance tickets spike

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 16/10/2020 Danny Lee danny.lee@scmp.com
a group of people walking in the rain: Visitors walk through Singapore’s Changi Airport earlier this month. Interest in travel between Hong Kong and the city state is currently soaring. Photo: AFP © EPA-EFE Visitors walk through Singapore’s Changi Airport earlier this month. Interest in travel between Hong Kong and the city state is currently soaring. Photo: AFP

Internet flight searches by travel-deprived Hongkongers jumped 400 per cent on the back of news that Hong Kong and Singapore planned to launch a quarantine-free reciprocal travel bubble, with the rush of interest apparently prompting a spike in airfares.

Expedia said it saw the three-digit surge in customers seeking a Singapore getaway, while a Post review of fares for dates in December showed prices had shot up by at least 57 per cent in the last 24 hours, to HK$3,297 (US$425) for a round-trip ticket from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Singapore on Thursday unveiled the landmark agreement to launch a bubble for general travel within "weeks" amid the havoc wreaked on the local economy - in particular the tourism industry - by the Covid-19 pandemic. The preliminary plan involves travellers showing negative test results for the coronavirus, with no restrictions placed on the purpose of travel, a ban on transit passengers, and no controlled itineraries.

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A passenger checks in at the Cathay Pacific counter at Hong Kong International Airport in August. Photo: Nora Tam © Provided by South China Morning Post A passenger checks in at the Cathay Pacific counter at Hong Kong International Airport in August. Photo: Nora Tam

The in-principle agreement to establish the bilateral travel bubble between the two leading Asian air hubs was possibly the world's first two-way arrangement of its kind, according to Singapore's transport chief.

Airlines are waiting to see if they will add more flights - pending the official launch date and an early cap on passengers - in order to manage what is sure to be the huge interest in the resumption of near-normal travel.

Singapore Airlines (SIA), one of the largest carriers plying the route between two of Asia's busiest cities, said on Thursday it would unveil its bubble plans in the "forthcoming days".

A check of ticket prices on Thursday immediately after the travel bubble deal was agreed showed Cathay Pacific offering a round-trip fare in December in economy class from Hong Kong for HK$2,097, while a similar SIA ticket was priced at HK$1,947.

By Friday, Cathay was offering the same ticket on the same date for HK$3,297, while SIA was selling theirs for HK$2,397.

Hong Kong, Singapore reach agreement on two-way, quarantine-free travel bubble

Having seen an earlier increase in interest on the route, SIA has already firmed up 10 return flights a week in November, adding three extra flights between Hong Kong and the city state, and leaving it primed to capitalise on the extra demand from bubble travel.

However, airlines have not yet designated specific flights as being Covid-19 bubble-approved - a key consideration.

"Singapore has consistently remained one of the top 10 destinations among Hong Kong travellers over the years," said Ang Choo Pin, Expedia Group's senior director of Asia government and corporate affairs, explaining the historic popularity of the Lion City in a statement.

"We have seen an increase of searches to Singapore by 400 per cent on Expedia.com.hk. This is a healthy indication that there's a strong appetite, eagerness and trust among our consumers to travel again."

Over the past 30 days, Singapore accounted for about 3 per cent of all destination searches among Asian countries, according to Expedia data.

Jeffries analyst Andrew Lee, who tracks Cathay Pacific's financial performance, said in a research note that the bubble plan was a "positive" for Cathay given its passenger traffic on the route had plummeted by 95 per cent for the past five months. Cathay had a 44 per cent market share on the route, while SIA had a 38 per cent share, according to Jefferies.

Travel bubble: more affordable Covid-19 tests needed to boost tourism, industry says

The Hong Kong-Singapore route was the 17th-busiest international air link in the world last year, with a total of 13,654 flights, according to air data provider OAG.

However, the number of flights from Hong Kong to Singapore collapsed as a result of Covid-19. According to the Cirium Flight Schedule, there were only 54 round trip flights planned this month offering 34,000 seats, a tiny fraction of what was offered in October 2019.

"Although the travel bubble will potentially facilitate increase of services by Cathay Pacific, SIA and Scoot (which have continued to operate minimal services on the route through 2020), demand is expected to remain depressed in the near-term as passenger confidence remains low," said Herman Tse, an analyst at Ascend by Cirium.

In 2019, Hong Kong had more than 450,000 arrivals from Singapore, according to the city's tourism board. Its counterpart in the city state said it had 489,000 visitors from Hong Kong the same year.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, remains in a deep recession brought on by the Covid-19 crisis, which has hammered tourism, aviation and retail businesses.

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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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