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Bali vaccinates tourism workers, as the island eyes travel bubbles

Bali has prioritised tourism workers to receive COVID-19 vaccines, with the island looking to form international travel bubbles into an established 'Green Zone'.

For many of our readers, heading back to Bali for a weekend or an even longer trip is one of the first things on their agenda as soon as it becomes possible again, with over 160,000 Singapore passport holders arriving on the popular holiday island as tourists in 2019.

That’s only part of the story of course, with a large chunk of Bali’s visitors holding other nationalities, like Australian, Malaysian, British and German, but actually residing here in Singapore.

Along with transit passengers, this helped airlines fill an impressive 27,700 seats per week (1.4 million per year) on direct flights from Changi to Denpasar, before COVID-19 hit.

Singapore Airlines was flying 28 flights per week to Bali pre-COVID, for a total of 8,700 seats. (Photo: Edwin Leong)

For us, this was always one of the first destinations we scanned for in the monthly Singapore Airlines Spontaneous Escapes offer (remember that?), where is was sometimes possible to pick up a Business Class redemption for just 13,300 miles each way.

Tourism workers are being prioritised for vaccination

Like many parts of the region, Bali has been devastated by the almost complete withdrawal of international tourism. While the sector officially counts for around a third of the island’s GDP, experts estimate it actually contributes, directly or indirectly, to around 80% of the local economy.

In an effort to revive this beleaguered industry, Bali has started to inoculate tourism workers with the COVID-19 vaccine as a priority group, having already completed over 13,000 vaccinations for healthcare workers, police, military, government officials, journalists, market vendors and the elderly.

Over 50,000 tourism workers on the island have now registered for the programme, which it’s hoped will allow Bali to open to international tourists later this year, once comprehensive COVID-19 screening is available.

The island has set up a drive-thru facility with capacity to vaccinate 5,000 workers per week, among those in the hospitality and ride-sharing sectors.

Bali has set up drive-thru vaccine centres, believed to be a first in the region

“After observing the COVID-19 cases in the last several weeks in Bali, I think it’s time for us to start reopening our border one step at a time for international visitors with strict prevention protocols in place.”

Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia Minister of Tourism

Now in Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout, Bali is on track to distribute 600,000 vaccine doses by July 2021.

Phase 3 will focus on all residents, starting in August 2021, with the government then aiming to vaccinate 70% of the island’s four million population.

“We expect at least 2.9 million people in Bali to be vaccinated by the final stage of the program to create immunity among people on the island.”

Dr. Ketut Suarjaya, Head of Bali Health Agency

According to Travel Trade Weekly, once tourism workers are inoculated, and comprehensive screening is widely available on the island, it is likely authorities will reopen Bali for tourists using travel bubbles or corridors based on bilateral agreements with low-risk countries.

Many of Bali’s regular visitors will soon be vaccinated

With vaccines rolling out globally, Bali’s initial opening may take the form of Thailand’s proposed tourism reboot in the second half of 2021, by initially allowing only vaccinated overseas visitors.

At the time of writing, over 30 million US residents are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, having received both doses, and with the country administering over 2.1 million jabs per day, 75% of its population (250 million) will be fully vaccinated by September 2021.

US passport holders accounted for 280,000 tourist visits to Bali in 2019.

Here in Singapore, 207,000 residents were fully vaccinated (both doses) as of 1st March 2021, with the country aiming to have its entire adult population of around 5.1 million protected by the end of the year.

Australian citizens make up the largest single group of tourists in Bali, at over 1.2 million in 2019. The country plans to fully vaccinate its adult population by October 2021.

Indonesia’s vaccine plan

On a wider scale than Bali itself, Indonesia is planning to vaccinate almost 182 million people (around two-thirds of its population) by March 2022, with orders in place for the following vaccines, which have been approved or are pending approval.

Indonesia COVID-19 Vaccine Orders

Vaccine / Source Orders
Sinovac 125.5 million
COVAX
(AstraZeneca)
54 million
AstraZeneca 50 million
Novavax 50 million
Pfizer 50 million
Total 329.5 million

Source: Cabinet Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia

As you can see 54 million (16%) of Indonesia’s initial tranche of vaccines will be provided by COVAX, the WHO / UNICEF programme to guarantee fair and equitable COVID-19 vaccine access for every country in the world, rich and poor. Primarily, it is providing the AstraZeneca vaccine for the time being.

The scheme is most significantly funded by the US government (US$4 billion) and the UK government (US$734 million), however Singapore is also supporting the programme with a US$5 million contribution. There are also significant private and corporate donors, like Mastercard (US$1.3 million) and Transferwise (US$7 million).

Unlike most countries, Indonesia is making it mandatory for eligible citizens to have the vaccine.

The ‘Green Zone’

Bali’s governor Wayan Koster announced last week that areas with minimal risk of COVID-19 transmission will be set aside for both domestic and international tourists in Bali, in a so-called ‘Green Zone’.

“In collaboration with the Health Ministry, we have agreed to open the Green Zone, so both domestic and international travellers will be only allowed to visit these COVID-19 free areas”

Wayan Koster, Governor of Bali

The ‘Green Zone’ includes the following locations on the island:

  • Kuta
  • Nusa Dua
  • Nusa Penida
  • Sanur
  • Ubud
Bali’s reopening plan for international tourism includes the Nusa Dua area. (Photo: Conrad Bali)

Though the ‘Green Zone’ concept may sound a little odd, it’s even being mooted here in Singapore. Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke only a few days ago about “bubble wrapping” overseas travellers to keep them away from the community while they visit the country.

Bali’s plan, effectively, is not too dissimilar.

Better testing

With COVID-19 testing likely to remain a necessary feature of international travel for some time to come, Indonesia is now trialling a non-invasive breathalyser screening technology, to replace the PCR swab test.

The devices, which were originally designed to detect tuberculosis, have been modified to identify the COVID-19 virus from exhaled breath. Initial trials have shown the process has a 98% accuracy, comparable with existing PCR and Antigen tests.

The system generates a result in less than two minutes, and costs only around US$1 per test to administer. 100 units are already in place on a trial basis across Indonesia, and will be rolled out to airport terminals from April 2021.

Indonesia has been trialling breathalyser COVID-19 testing, and will also do so at airports starting next month. (Photo: Reuters)

Several countries such as Australia, Israel, the US and the UK have also developed similar devices that are undergoing trials and are likely to be authorised for widespread testing soon.

Such technology will significantly simplify the travel process and potentially prevent self isolation or stay-home periods while test results are pending.

Will Singapore reciprocate?

One of the main stumbling blocks even if Bali does begin accepting tourist visitors later this year is whether it will coincide with a relaxation of the current Stay Home Notice (SHN) requirements imposed on those arriving in Singapore from Indonesia.

Currently those arriving from Indonesia are subject to a 14-day SHN period in a dedicated facility.

(Photo: MBS)

As Singapore residents are progressively vaccinated against COVID-19, this will largely hinge on evidence that vaccines reduce transmission, even when a vaccinated individual succumbs to the virus.

“If you have the vaccination, you travel to a high-risk place, you come back, can that SHN be shortened, or even done away with completely? That is the big question.

“We still don’t know the extent to which a vaccination can completely – or how significantly – help reduce transmission risk. So, those studies are still pending. If indeed the data shows that transmission risks can come down significantly with vaccination, then certainly, we will consider reducing drastically the SHN or even doing away with it.”

Lawrence Wong, Singapore Education Minister

While peer-reviewed studies are still awaited, data already points to a potential four-fold decrease in transmission among those fully vaccinated in the UK, and potentially even more in a preliminary Israeli study.

If proven, it means that even if vaccinated people get infected with COVID-19, they are less contagious and would therefore offer protection to unvaccinated people.

Theoretically a “vaccinated with testing” combination should then be a safe proposition for incoming visitors and returning residents, but time will tell what scheme the government ultimately come up with, and for how long it will remain country-specific.

Summary

Don’t go packing your suitcase for a Bali trip just yet. Although it looks likely the island will join the list of countries welcoming vaccinated travellers in the second half of 2021, or even allowing those who test negative for COVID-19, much can still change between now and then.

There is also the issue of whether Singapore will relax or lift SHN restrictions for vaccinated residents on their return from such countries at the same time, otherwise demand will be severely restricted.

With rapid arrival testing looking set to be in place, Bali could get a first mover advantage by opening its borders to international vaccinated travellers, while relatively few other countries are doing the same.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that falling case numbers, better local controls and widespread vaccination on the island mean it has every chance of making it onto our travel list later in 2021.

(Cover Photo: Amerterra Villa)

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