SINGAPORE. In a huge boost to the travel retail sector as well as the wider aviation and tourism industry, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday announced a widespread easing of travel restrictions.

From 13 October, the government will allow vaccinated travellers to enter the island state from several countries including Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the US and the UK, together with Brunei, Germany and from November (as previously announced) South Korea.

The news will delight Changi Airport Group and Singapore Airlines, whose revenues have been stricken by a near total collapse in air traffic. The respective companies’ commercial partners, too, including Lotte Duty Free, The Shilla Duty Free and others at Changi Airport and KrisShop (the Singapore Airlines/3Sixty Duty Free/SATS joint venture) will also be excited to see a significant lift to passenger volumes.

[Click on the Straits Times YouTube icon to listen to what might mark a watershed moment in travel retail’s recovery as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the Singaporean people]

A Changi Airport Group spokesperson told The Moodie Davitt Report: “The introduction of Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) to Singapore, 11 in all, is yet another positive step towards the recovery of travel and connectivity for the Singapore air hub.

“Together, these 11 VTL markets accounted for more than 6.7 million [out of 68.3 million total passengers -Ed] of Changi Airport’s passenger traffic in 2019 (both Singapore residents and visitors). They include Changi’s key long-haul markets during the pre-COVID period. The VTLs will make it easier for people to travel for business, leisure and to visit loved ones. We look forward to serving more passengers travelling to and from these VTL countries and remain committed to providing a safe and smooth travel experience for them at Changi Airport.”

Passengers travelling on VTLs to Singapore must be fully vaccinated and arrive on designated VTL flights. They will need to take PCR tests 48 hours pre-departure and on-arrival with no quarantine requirements. VTLs can be used for any purpose of travel.

Speaking to the Singaporean people via a live television address, Prime Minister Lee said: “We must press on with our strategy of ‘Living with COVID-19’. What next steps must we now take? To start with, and most fundamentally, we need to update our mindsets. We should respect COVID-19, but we must not be paralysed by fear.

“Let us go about our daily activities as normally as possible, taking necessary precautions and complying with SMMs [safe management measures]. With vaccinations, COVID-19 has become a treatable, mild disease for most of us. This is especially so if you are young. Or even if you are not so young but fully vaccinated. The threat of COVID-19 is now mainly to seniors: 60 and above if you are not vaccinated, or 80 and above even if you are vaccinated. So for 98% of us, if we catch COVID-19, we can recover by ourselves at home, just as we would if we had the flu.”

Lotte Duty Free could hardly have been unluckier than to begin its new concession (9 June 2020) amid the depths of a global pandemic. Prime Minister Lee’s announcement will have been met with great delight at the company’s Seoul headquarters.

The Prime Minister continued: “As part of living with COVID-19, we must also connect ourselves back to the world. In particular, we must continue to re-open our borders safely. Companies and investors need to carry out regional and global business from Singapore. People working for them need to travel to earn a living. Students need to go on overseas attachments and internships without having to SHN [Stay-Home Notice] each time. Families and friends will once in a while want to spend time together overseas.

Fellow Korean travel retailer The Shilla Duty Free has enjoyed the best and the worst of times at Changi. Now it will be hoping the road to recovery is finally beckoning.

“We have started Vaccinated Travel Lanes with Germany and Brunei, and just announced another with South Korea. These pilot projects have shown it is possible for vaccinated persons to travel safely, while letting in very few COVID-19 positive cases. We are implementing more such arrangements, especially with countries whose COVID-19 situations are stable. This will keep us connected to global supply chains and help to preserve Singapore’s hub status.”

Singapore Airlines reacts swiftly to travel changes

The Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group yesterday (9 October) expanded its quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) network to 14 cities, with additional points expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

This followed Singapore’s widening of its VTL arrangements to include Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

These are on top of the existing VTL arrangements with Brunei and Germany, which began in September 2021.

Singapore Airlines is set to fly again to 14 cities (Photo: SIA Group)

Singapore Airlines said that it will operate VTL services from Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, London, Los Angeles, Milan, New York, Paris, and Rome starting 19 October. SIA’s VTL services from Seoul will begin on 16 November. Today, SIA operates VTL services from Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei and Frankfurt and Munich in Germany.

Scoot, SIA’s sister airline, will operate VTL flights from Berlin from 20 October.

Multi-city itineraries within VTL countries are allowed if customers meet the 14-day travel history requirement, which includes transit countries. For example, a traveller may fly from Singapore to Paris, and then Paris to Amsterdam, and still be eligible for the VTL flight from Amsterdam to Singapore.

However, a customer who flies from Singapore to Los Angeles via Tokyo  will not be eligible for SIA’s non-stop VTL flight from Los Angeles if the stay in Los Angeles is less than 14 days.

Lee said that the emergence of the Delta variant had prompted a sharp change of thinking. “The Delta variant is highly infectious and has spread all over the world. Even with the whole population vaccinated, we still will not be able to stamp it out through lockdowns and SMMs. Almost every country has accepted this reality.

“Furthermore, even if we manage to keep COVID-19 cases down through stringent SMMs, the virus will spread swiftly again as soon as we ease up. This is especially true in Singapore, precisely because of our ‘Zero COVID’ strategy. The majority of us have never experienced an infection. Or as doctors say, we are COVID-naïve. As a result, our natural (population) immunity is low. Even if we have been vaccinated, we are still at some risk of getting infected. This is why we must be prepared to see quite many COVID-19 cases for some time to come.

“Yet Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely. It would not work, and it would be very costly. We would be unable to resume our lives, participate in social activities, open our borders, and revive our economy. Each time we tighten up, businesses are further disrupted. Workers lose jobs. Children are deprived of a proper childhood and school life. Families are separated for even longer. Especially families with loved ones overseas and extended families who have not been able to come together. All these cause psychological and emotional strain, and mental fatigue. For Singaporeans and for everyone else here with us, including our migrant workers.

“Therefore, we concluded a few months ago that a ‘Zero COVID’ strategy was no longer feasible. So we changed strategy, to ‘Living with COVID-19’.”