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Coronavirus travel bubbles

Travel Bubbles Are a Terrible Idea

Living in Taiwan during the coronavirus crisis has benefitted me in many ways. From the lack of sickness and death in the country, to the fact that there was never any sort of lockdown, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Taiwan was (and still is, I guess) the best place in the world to ride out Covid-19.

Another perk that may soon materialize? Taiwan is a high-ranking contender for inclusion in the so-called “travel bubbles” many countries want to create over the coming weeks and months.

This prospect should thrill me, given that I stand to gain from it, both personally and professionally. But it doesn’t—I find travel bubbles to be a terrible idea, in fact.

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What Exactly is a “Travel Bubble”?

Although it sounds strange and futuristic, a travel bubble is actually a pretty simple idea, at least in the context of travel after coronavirus. Essentially, travel bubbles are air (or, I guess, sea) corridors between countries that have either eliminated the virus or gotten it under control. This idea first emerged in April 2020, after it became clear that both Australia and New Zealand were on the verge of suppressing coronavirus within their territories.

Since then the conversation about travel bubbles has spread globally, including to the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where it has apparently been in effect since late May. Other potential Covid-free travel bubbles include ones between the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Cyprus and Israel; Taiwan hasn’t proposed creating its own bubble, but most countries entertaining the possibility of one have named my adopted home country as a likely target destination.

Why I Think Travel Bubbles Are a Silly Idea

The travel bubble concept is regressive

Before coronavirus destroyed the travel industry, immigration policy around the world was grossly unfair, even when it came to tourism. While citizens from rich (and mostly Western) countries could travel almost anywhere they wanted with nothing more than a passport, those from poorer nations had to jump through hoops even to have a chance of getting most tourist visas. Travel in the wake of Covid-19 should become more inclusive, not more exclusive; travel bubbles create new and largely unnecessary inequities.

They’re sexier in theory than in reality

If you can ignore the fact that travel bubbles would bifurcate the world into a system of health apartheid, they seem like a perfect solution. People from “clean” countries can travel to other such nations needing neither to test before departure nor to quarantine after arrival. Deeper examination reveals an obvious flaw with this thought process. If even a single Covid-positive person makes his or her way into such a bubble—there are a number of ways this could occur, such as transfer passengers escaping from sterile zones into their transit country—a cluster could lead to an outbreak, which could quickly result in renewed border closure.

The economic benefit would be minimal

The patchwork mechanism of dealing with the pandemic and piecemeal closure of borders was a catastrophic failure of global governance. The only way for the travel industry—and the world economy—to recovery fully is a harmonized re-opening of borders, in concert with an orchestrated re-opening of tourism and trade. Since most proposed travel bubbles would connect small- to medium-sized countries which, on their own, are of nominal economic importance, their upside for GDP would be minimal, both for travel bubble member countries and for the international community as a whole.

(And short-lived)

I give a lot of credit to countries like Taiwan (and even Australia and New Zealand, which achieved similar success, albeit with much more economic pain). On the other hand, while eliminating coronavirus is a great short-term strategy, it becomes untenable in the medium- to long-term. Whether because a sick person ends up piercing a travel bubble (thereby re-introducing the pathogen to a population that is, with few exceptions, immunologically naive), or the rest of the world never ends up developing a successful vaccine (do “clean” countries just hide behind walls forever?), travel bubbles simply delay the inevitable.

Travel bubbles fail to address the underlying truth of Covid-19

Even if scientists are able to develop and quickly deploy a successful vaccine for the novel coronavirus, it’s likely too late to eradicate it. This is according to the WHO (for those of you who still trust them—living in Taiwan has taught me I can’t), which admitted in early May 2020 that coronavirus will become endemic and seasonal, like the common cold. Now obviously, a vaccine would minimize the havoc Covid-19 could wreak in countries with no semblance of herd immunity, but the only way to keep countries Covid-free indefinitely is to partition them off from the rest of the world in perpetuity.

Alternatives to Travel Bubbles

Travel bubbles, like the lockdowns most countries used to suppress their coronavirus outbreaks in the first place, are blunt remedies to a problem that requires precision to solve. Here are some alternative approaches that are both more effective and more equitable:

  • Rapid PCR/antigen and/or antibody testing before departure and/or after arrival: Testing travelers for the coronavirus (or for antibodies to the disease) is the most reliable way to prevent coronavirus from moving across international borders.
  • Traveler triage and selective quarantines: Rather than completely banning travelers from countries with expanding coronavirus epidemics, authorities (either immigration or public health professionals, or even airlines themselves) could divide arriving travelers in groups according to risk, and require high-risk travelers to quarantine for a certain period.
  • Mandatory contact tracing and self-health management: Individual cases or even clusters of coronavirus are not, on their own, public health emergencies. Those occur only when authorities are unable to trace infection routes. Requiring all arriving travelers to submit their contact information and agree to being traced (whether manually or electronically) prevents this eventuality.

Irrespective of which of these approaches ends up dominating (I imagine a few will co-exist globally), I want to echo what I said earlier: The world needs to tackle this crisis—opening borders, as well as containing epidemics within poorer countries—together.

Will Travel Bubbles Actually Materialize?

Let me reiterate that I am not a scientist (although I did minor—and nearly major—in chemistry). With this being said, I’m inclined to think coronavirus will largely burn itself out by the end of the summer; I’m not convinced a second wave is inevitable (a conclusion Dr. Anthony Fauci, of all people, has also recently reached). In an even moderately optimistic scenario, Covid-19 (at least, pandemic Covid-19) will be a thing of the past by the end of summer, minimizing the need for travel restrictions all together.

Travel bubbles, to be sure, are a(n imperfect) solution that should’ve been fully conceptualized before borders closed in the first place; negotiating their specifics could well take longer than the remaining lifespan of coronavirus as a global health emergency. Moreover, global travel leaders from airline CEOs to multi-national bodies are lobbying governments around the world (they have been for months; it’s just louder now) for the sort of harmonized, integrated solutions I’ve mentioned throughout this piece. It’s possible, in the end, that travel bubbles will nothing more than a placebo to inoculate the world’s travelers against despair.

The Bottom Line

Living in Taiwan, the only “bubbles” that interest me are the tapioca ones you find in syrupy-sweet pearl milk tea. Travel bubbles, to be sure, are a short-term solution to a long-term problem, a blunt instrument for a task that demands precision. Resuscitating travel (and the global economy as a whole) after coronavirus requires cooperation on a planetary scale, rather than sloppy and short-sighted bilateral agreements. I personally think the Covid crisis will resolve itself before most travel bubbles make it off the pages of the internet and into the pages of law, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. Either way, I imagine we’ll all be traveling again sooner than we think.

About The Author

is the author of 1206 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!


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