If your vision of the first overseas leisure trip since COVID-19 border restrictions were implemented last year was pulling up to one of the terminals at Changi Airport then boarding a plane for a getaway in Hong Kong or perhaps Phuket, you may need to think again.
Plans are underway for a travel bubble with the nearby Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan, a short ferry ride from Singapore, with the local government in the Riau Islands eager to have the arrangement up and running as early as April 2021.
Talks regarding the bubble arrangement have been ongoing between Indonesia’s tourism minister Sandiaga Uno, relevant government departments, and their counterparts in Singapore, since late last year.
On 12th March 2021 Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, in a meeting with Indonesian officials, agreed to form a team to work on the travel bubble, with further statements made earlier this week.
“I think this is a good (plan) of how we can initiate all trips between the people of Singapore to the Riau Islands, especially with the travel bubble.”Mohammed Maliki Osman, Singapore’s Second Minister for Education & Foreign Affairs
With this proposed travel arrangement, it will be possible for business people and tourists to travel freely within the designated Batam, Bintan and Singapore area, subject to implementation of the necessary health protocols.
Less than an hour away from Singapore by ferry, these islands were very popular with Singapore residents looking for a short break before COVID-19, without the added hassle of air travel, and would provide a fresh alternative to those suffering from staycation fatigue.
“The plan is that on April 21 we will open Bintan Lagoi Resort and Nongsa Point Marina for Singaporean tourists, of course with strict health control protocols.”
Ansar Ahmad, Riau Islands Province Governor, via Tempo.co and CNN Indonesia (translation required)
Despite Indonesia being one of the worst affected countries in Asia by the COVID-19 pandemic, infections across these two islands have remained remarkably low, with 111 active cases in Batam and 144 in Bintan according to recent government statistics.
At the time of writing, Singapore has 132 active cases.
How will it work?
The bubble will be made possible by the segregation of designated tourism areas on the two Indonesian islands, home to many hotels and resorts popular with Singapore residents, plus a COVID-19 vaccination drive for tourism workers.
Indonesia’s tourism minister noted that 1,500 tourism workers were vaccinated yesterday in Batam and 2,000 in Bintan.
“The target is 30,000 which we must vaccinate before April for the safe travel corridor.”Sandiaga Uno, Indonesian Tourism Minister
For those arriving in Batam or Bintan from Singapore, a pre-departure PCR test will be required, plus a GeNose COVID-19 breath detector test on arrival according to Channel News Asia.
Initial trials have shown the GeNose 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.
No further details have been provided, particularly for the testing and quarantine requirements on return.
Currently, arrivals into Singapore from Indonesia must have a COVID-19 PCR test on arrival and serve a 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) period at a dedicated facility, though the SHN portion would almost certainly have to be removed for this proposal to be successful.
The travel bubble may serve as a good test bed for Indonesia’s plans to reopen Bali to tourism later this year, with a segregated ‘Green Zone’ on the island defined for trips made by international visitors.
Bali is also in the process of vaccinating its front line tourism workers as part of the proposal, in a similar fashion to Batam and Bintan.
While the 18,000-hectare Bintan Resorts zone, separated from the rest of the island by a barbed wire fence and accessible only through a single security checkpoint, lends itself perfectly to the idea of a travel bubble, the plans are starting a little smaller than that.
According to local media in Indonesia, initially only four of the development’s 19 hotels will be included in the scheme.
These designated properties are reported to be seeking SG Clean certification, to reassure prospective tourists that their visit will be safe, in addition to communication with Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
By working with the same team that made staycations possible here in Singapore, resorts in the Riau Islands have a good chance of convincing authorities here that the travel bubble should be approved.
We spoke to a few hotels in Bintan about the proposals. They told us that discussions regarding the travel bubble with Singapore are still ongoing, but that there is no confirmed start date, with 21st April simply “a suggested roadmap”, as one hotel said, for now.
Bintan Resorts Hotels
Banyan Tree Bintan
Banyu Biru Villa
Bintan Lagoon Resort
Bintan Service Apartment
Club Med Bintan Island
Doulos Phos Ship Hotel
Grand Lagoi Hotel
|Holiday Villa Pandai Indah
Indra Maya Pool Villa
Lagoi Bay Villas
Mayang Sari Beach Resort
Nirwana Beach Club
Nirwana Resort Hotel
Ria Golf Lodge
Bintan’s hotels and resorts have been struggling since the almost complete withdrawal of tourist visitors last year, with CNA reporting in December 2020 that villas at The Banyan Tree, normally costing 6 million rupiah (US$417) per night, were selling for just 1.75 million rupiah (US$122).
Over in Batam there are six hotels in the Nongsa Point area, though currently there are no reports regarding how many might be opened to Singapore tourists as part of this arrangement.
Batam Nongsa Point Hotels
|Batam View Beach Resort
Nongsa Point Marina Resort
Turi Beach Resort
Unfortunately the new Marriott Batam, which opened in October 2020 and is located at Harbour Bay, is unlikely to be included in the bubble, due to its location.
There is currently only one weekly ferry service operating between Singapore’s Tanah Merah ferry terminal and Bandar Bentan Telani (at Bintan Resorts), with no services to or from Nonsgapura (at Batam’s Nongsa Point).
A ‘travel bubble’ concept would no doubt mean more regular ferries would be introduced to both locations, with only designated bubble passengers allowed on board.
Indonesian officials are flagging 21st April 2021 as the launch date for this bubble arrangement, but Singapore has remained mostly silent on any proposal to date.
Realistically, with no formal arrangements yet published including ferry timings, designated hotels and the all-important process for those returning to Singapore using a travel bubble concept, mid-April does seem a bit too soon to be realistic for this proposal, in our opinion.
Channel News Asia still appears to be awaiting a response from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the plans, following an article it published yesterday, and as we all know from the country’s unilateral opening of its borders to countries like New Zealand and Brunei last year, “it takes two to bubble”.
Nonetheless there are clearly ‘wheels in motion’, and if the plan does come to fruition quickly it will almost certainly beat any proposed Air Travel Bubble Singapore is negotiating, potentially becoming the first opportunity for overseas leisure travel from the Lion City since most borders were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Would you take a trip to Batam or Bintan with testing replacing quarantine, if the travel bubble is approved? Let us know in the comments section below.
(Cover Photo: Club Med Bintan)