03 July 2020

Travel bubbles: the latest travel trend in the age of COVID-19

As more neighbouring countries create travel bubbles with one another, the next few months will likely see more travellers reach their destinations on cars, buses and trains rather than large planes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left travellers with few places to go this summer. For most of the world that has yet to move past its peak in the number of cases or seeing a second wave of new infections, travel options are scarce. As tourist season approaches in many parts of the world, governments are seeking to reopen their countries to travellers and revive the tourism sector, while also minimising the risk of further spread. As a result, we now have multiple "travel bubbles" across the world, the latest trend in travel driven by the ongoing pandemic.

A travel bubble is a zone created by countries that agree to reopen their borders to one another. Travel bubbles are predominantly formed by countries that share a border and have largely contained the COVID-19 outbreak, making them a relatively safe and convenient option for travel. The first travel bubble in Europe emerged on 15 May, when the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania agreed to reopen their borders to residents and nationals of each country without a quarantine requirement. More countries followed suit. Nationals and residents of Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia can travel to the four countries without having to take a test or quarantine. Outside Europe, Australia and New Zealand are also considering forming a travel bubble. Meanwhile, Canada has a domestic travel bubble, following an agreement between the provinces of Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

As more neighbouring countries and regions consider forming travel bubbles and only a handful of countries allow unrestricted entry, tourism is likely to shift to local and regional travel. The next few months will see tourists travel to their vacation destination on cars, buses and trains rather than large planes. While airlines and airports suffered a historic drop in traffic due to extensive restrictions and a decrease in demand among wary travellers, bus and railway companies will gain a boost and the tourism sector will be able to make a partial recovery from the emergence of travel bubbles.

As more travellers look to destinations closer to home and countries continue to shut out travellers from high-risk countries, fewer international business and leisure travellers will be seen. While a US passport had been considered one of the most powerful in the world, travellers in the United States - where the number of cases amounts to about a quarter of the world's total and multiple states are seeing a "second wave" of new COVID-19 cases - are left with few options for travel abroad after being hit by entry bans from multiple countries. When the European Union reopened its external borders on 1 July, travellers from the US were shut out, with the US excluded from the list of select countries approved for entry. With many restrictions still in effect on travel to and from China, much fewer tourists and business travellers from China will be seen abroad as well, after having been a key market for the tourist sector before the pandemic.

The emergence of travel bubbles represents yet another way that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world of travel. While options for international travel remain severely limited, travel bubbles at least give travellers some possibility to conduct business and/or vacation abroad, with the opportunity to enjoy their travel in nearly pre-pandemic-like conditions.