Singapore, February 21 (ANI): Last week, Singapore signalled its intent to fully reopen the country to vaccinated foreigners by significantly relaxing entry requirements, extending its VTL (vaccinated travel lane) to more countries and tripling the number of VTL travellers allowed to enter the country.
Singapore’s transport minister Mr S Iswaran said at a press conference last Wednesday (February 16) that it is important to resume the reopening of borders and reclaim Singapore’s position as a global business and aviation hub. Iswaran added, “Our ultimate goal is quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travellers.”
Singapore paused its reopening last December as the Omicron variant emerged and started spreading rapidly across the globe. Now, as the Omicron wave in Singapore looks to be peaking and Singapore begins to understand “with greater certainty over the nature of Omicron variant and its associated risks”, it feels confident to resume its plan to welcome the world.
This confidence also stems from the high vaccination rate among its population with 90 per cent of the entire population considered to be fully vaccinated. Furthermore, it concluded that imported infections are at only about one per cent of the total case count and hence has minimal impact on Singapore’s epidemic situation.
As of February 15, a total of 389,046 visitors have entered Singapore via the VTL programme since its inception.
Starting from Tuesday, February 22, VTL travellers and those from countries deem to be of low COVID-19 risk will just need to take oneself-administered ART (antigen rapid test) at a testing centre under supervision within 24 hours of arrival. This test cost just SGD 15 (about USD 11 or INR 800). They no longer need to take the expensive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test upon arrival at the airport which cost SGD 125, more than eight times the supervised ART. The requirement to self-test every day for the six days after arrival has been removed.
Visitors are still required to submit evidence of a negative pre-departure ART within 48 hours of departure.
Rules for transiting passengers have also been eased. They will no longer need to take pre-departure ART tests and can enjoy the facilities at Changi Airport without having to isolate in a holding area.
The assessed travel history will be reduced from 14 days to seven days which means to be considered to be travelling from a particular VTL city, the visitor only needs to be in that city for seven days.
From February 25, travellers from Hong Kong, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be added to Singapore’s VTL scheme and from March 4, Israel and the Philippines.
Presently, there are 24 VTL countries. The addition of the above six will bring it up to 30.
For non-VTL visitors, Singapore will collapse its risk border categorisations. Category 1, a general category for all countries and a third “restricted category” for high-risk countries. At the moment, no country has also been placed in the restricted category.
Category 1 is for countries which are deemed to carry the lowest risk of COVID-19 infection. Currently, only Hong Kong, Macao, Mainland China, and Taiwan are in this category. However, Hong Kong will be taken off this list from February 25 due to the recent surge in COVID cases.
Entry requirements for travellers from Category 1 countries are similar to that of VTL travellers but they do need to be vaccinated.
The relaxation of rules for visitors is a major step towards reopening and is vastly more liberal compared with its neighbours.
Thailand, for example, has touted its quarantine-free entry for visitors to much fanfare but visitors are still faced with a barrage of the more expensive PCR test when arriving. One, before departure, one upon arrival and another on the fifth day after arriving. Travel industry experts deem that such excessive testing is deterring tourism, especially those who are on a budget and those looking for a short vacation.
Following the news, Singapore Airlines (SIA) which is a major beneficiary of the reopening saw its share price close last Friday more than four per cent higher from week’s low.
The reopening announcement is timely for the carrier as in its January operating statistics report, SIAobserved a slight decline in passenger demand in January 2022 compared to a month ago. It attributed this to the suspension of new ticket sales for VTL flights between December 22 to January 20 because of the emergence of Omicron. Since then, ticket sales have resumed and VTL quota has been increased.
Despite this, the SIA Group (including low-cost carrier Scoot) reported a 126 per cent increase in capacity (measured in available seat-kilometres) compared with a year ago and a 2.8 per cent month-on-month growth, reaching 46 per cent of pre-COVID capacity. However, passenger traffic (revenue passenger kilometres) fell 11.7 per cent compared to the previous month, and its passenger load factor for January 2022 declined 6.5 percentage points to 40 per cent. There was however a 28.7 percentage points year-on-year increase.
As of the end of January 2022, SIA’s passenger network covered 86 destinations counting Singapore and about 13 Indian cities including Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata.
The Singapore tourism industry which saw the lowest international tourist arrivals in 2021 since data was kept in the 1970s, will also stand to gain. Singapore had only 330,000 visitors in 2021. The last full pre-COVID year of 2019 saw 19.1million visitors, out of which 1.42 million people visited from India, making Indians the third largest group of visitors. Indians made up the second-largest group of visitors by nationality to the island in 2021 with 54,000 arrivals.
In 2019, Singapore collected SGD 27.7 billion (USD 20.4 billion) of tourism-related receipts contributing about four per cent of GDP.
As the country started to reopen in the fourth quarter of last year, the Singapore Tourism Board started to see tourist arrivals trend upwards.
Keith Tan, Chief Executive, Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was quoted earlier this year as saying, “While it will take time for tourism numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels, we are encouraged by the resilience of our tourism businesses, and their commitment to preserve good jobs, transform their businesses and invest in new products and experiences. These efforts will strengthen Singapore’s appeal as we prepare to welcome more international visitors.”
If Singapore continues its reopening trajectory, while other nearby countries continue to insist on visitors facing a salvo of COVID tests, there is a good chance that it will capture some of the tourism traffic which used to head for its regional neighbours.