By Choi Kyong-ae
SEOUL, June 18 (Yonhap) — South Korean airlines are revving up their preparations to take off for Guam and other overseas tourist spots with vaccinated people as such destinations begin to welcome inoculated travelers without quarantine.
To allow group tours of fully vaccinated Koreans to such holiday destinations, the South Korean government is in talks with Guam, Saipan and Singapore to sign a quarantine-free travel bubble agreement.
“There seems to be an increase in outbound travel demand later this year as Guam and Saipan announced this week they will accept passengers vaccinated with AstraZeneca,” a transport ministry official said.
Group tours to the countries are now possible without bilateral travel bubble agreements, but passengers should undergo local quarantine requirements.
U.S. territories like Guam and Saipan have allowed exemptions from a two-week quarantine for incoming passengers who have received Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen vaccines. Staring Saturday, AstraZeneca vaccine recipients will also be exempt from the quarantine.
Unvaccinated people will still be required to take a coronavirus test at the territories’ airports and undergo a two-week quarantine at local facilities.
The Seoul government plans to contact Taiwan and Thailand for the exclusive travel partnership, which have been relatively successful in containing and combating the pandemic within their respective borders.
Once two countries sign a travel bubble agreement, they open up their borders, and their people can travel freely within the zone without undergoing on-arrival, two-week quarantine measures.
Among local carriers, Jeju Air Co. was quick to resume flights to Saipan on June 8 in a preemptive measure to absorb post-coronavirus travel demand.
The country’s biggest budget carrier plans to reopen the route to Guam as early as August as it expects pent-up demand for travel to the U.S. territory to rise depending on the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Industry sources said more fully vaccinated people are expected to buy tickets to the resort destinations later this year as the country’s vaccination campaign gains speed. And many tour agencies are in a hurry to roll out tour programs for such people.
As of Friday, more than 14 million people received their first shots of COVID-19 vaccines, accounting for over 27 percent of the 51.3 million population. Health authorities aim to get 22 million more vaccinated during the July-September period and to create herd immunity by November.
If the country’s vaccination rate expands to 50 percent and half of the vaccinated people plan to travel overseas, it will help revive the number of the country’s potential outbound passengers to some 45 percent of 2019 levels, analysts said.
“But 6 out of 10 outbound passengers from Incheon International Airport headed for Southeast Asia, China and Japan in 2019. A full recovery in travel demand depends on quarantine efforts in those countries,” Bang Min-jin, an analyst at Eugene Investment Co., said in her research note.
Analysts expect global air travel demand will recover to the level of 2019 in late 2022 as each country’s virus response and their quarantine regulations are different.
The country’s full-service carriers and other low-cost carriers are also making preparations to resume flights for outbound travelers.
Korean Air Lines Co. and Asiana Airlines Inc. — the country’s two full-service carriers — said they are considering reopening routes to Guam, Hawaii and Taiwan later this year, while low-cost ones like Air Seoul Inc., Air Busan Co. and T’way Air Co. said they plan to resume flights to spots, such as Guam and Saipan, during the third quarter.
National flag carrier Korean Air began selling tickets for flights between Incheon and Guam scheduled in November. It has yet to decide when to reopen flights to other resort destinations for vaccinated travelers.
Asiana has decided to restart services on the route to Saipan on July 24, while looking at the time frame for flights to Guam, Hawaii and Taiwan.
T’way plans to begin providing flights to Saipan on July 20 and Guam on July 31, while Air Seoul and Air Busan plan to start offering services on the Guam route on Aug. 12 and in September, respectively.
Jin Air Co. has continued to provide flights to Guam once a week in the past year despite the pandemic to meet demand from businesspeople and Koreans residing in the U.S. territory and their families.
In a further sign of recovery, the Incheon International Airport Corp. which operates Incheon International Airport, reopened duty-free shops in the arrivals area on June 4 following a seven-month closure due to the pandemic.
All arrivals, whether South Korean or foreign, are able to purchase duty-free items at the shops. Passengers on sightseeing “flights to nowhere” will also be able to use the shops if there are no arrivals at the same time.