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Air travel in Asia won’t return to pre-Covid levels ‘anytime soon,’ says Singapore minister

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Key Points
  • Singapore's Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said "open and free" air travel within Asia remains unlikely in the near term as parts of the region battle with an increase in Covid-19 infections.
  • International travel came to sudden halt in the past year due to the pandemic, and that's hurt Singapore's aviation and tourism sectors — two major contributors to economic growth.
  • Singapore experienced a renewed rise in Covid cases last month, but tighter restrictions have been working and that allows the country to gradually open up again, said Wong.
VIDEO3:1403:14
Singapore minister says he is 'less sanguine' about air travel in Asia as Covid persists

SINGAPORE — Singapore's Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said "open and free" air travel in Asia remains unlikely in the near term as parts of the region battle with an increase in Covid-19 infections.

"I am somewhat less sanguine about the prospects for air travel," Wong told Martin Soong as part of the virtual CNBC Evolve Global Summit.

"The region is still facing rolling waves of infection, and vaccination rates for many countries in the region are still not high enough. So I don't think we will be able to see open and free travel in the region, in particular, any time soon," said the minister who also co-chairs Singapore's coronavirus task force.

Singapore is a Southeast Asian city-state with no domestic air travel market. International travel came to a sudden halt in the past year due to the pandemic, and that's hurt Singapore's aviation and tourism sectors — two major contributors to economic growth.  

For the most part ... all of that is not going to add up to what we used to have pre-Covid. So air travel, I'm afraid, will take some time to recover.
Lawrence Wong
Finance Minister, Singapore

Wong said the Singapore government continues to talk with its counterparts in the region about setting up "safe travel lanes." He didn't name the places Singapore is in talks.

"Perhaps amongst the countries with low and stable infections, we may have some travel arrangements. Perhaps for vaccinated travelers, there may be some benefits in terms of shorter quarantine times," said the minister.

"But for the most part ... all of that is not going to add up to what we used to have pre-Covid. So air travel, I'm afraid, will take some time to recover," Wong added.

Singapore has an air travel bubble agreement with Hong Kong that will allow travelers to skip quarantine. But the launch of the scheme has been postponed twice — first from November and then again in May — due to renewed Covid outbreaks in either cities.

Last week, the prime ministers of Singapore and Australia said they will work toward an air travel bubble arrangement between the two countries.

Singapore's Covid situation

Asia, where the coronavirus was first detected, saw a spike in infections in recent months. Places ranging from developing nations — such as India and Nepal — to more developed economies including Japan and Taiwan had a resurgence in cases.

Singapore also experienced a renewed rise in cases last month after previous successes in containing the outbreak — which led the government to tighten social-distancing measures.

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Covid is 'endemic' and will not go away, says Singapore's foreign minister

Wong said those measures have been working and that allows the country to gradually ease restrictions again. But he warned that the situation could be unpredictable.

"You know, with this virus, you can never tell what happens in the next few days, because … there will always be surprises. It's a very tricky virus. Each time you think you have it under control, it pops up in a new direction," said Wong.

The minister reiterated the government's goal of having at least 50% of the population fully vaccinated by August.

Singapore appears on track to meet that goal. Around 2.7 million people — or 47% of the country's population — have received at least the first dose of Covid vaccine as of Monday, according to the latest health ministry data.