Green lanes’ success hinges on visa, health and safety procedures

  • Slow corporate travel rebound expected, movement limited to business-critical trips
  • Arduous application-approval process and rigorous quarantine measures remain an obstacle
  • New approach needed for duty of care, meeting itinerary

Travel managers are withholding their verdict on the effectiveness of Singapore’s reciprocal green lanes with several countries in spurring business travel recovery, saying that traveller confidence and ease of visa applications will determine the arrangement’s success.

Most corporates are not ready to leap back into business travel

The city-state has recently added Brunei, South Korea and Japan to its list of reciprocal green lane arrangements for business and essential travel, joining earlier agreements with China’s Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Tianjin and Zhejiang as well as Malaysia.

Singapore, whose travel and tourism industry is heavily dependent on international markets, had also on August 21 announced the lifting of border restrictions to allow entry of visitors travelling from New Zealand, although the move has yet to be mirrored by the New Zealand government.

Akshay Kapoor, CWT’s senior director, Multinational Customer Group, Asia Pacific, told TTGmice that companies are still in ‘wait-and-see’ mode to determine the resilience and stability of these arrangements.

“Without a doubt, the opening of green lanes between Singapore and other important business travel markets like China and South Korea, as well as the gradual resumption of bigger meetings and events, are viewed as positive developments by our customers who are keen to travel and meet face-to-face again. However, it’s still early days…so we can’t yet be certain how successful these initiatives will be in restoring confidence among corporates and their traveling employees,” added Kapoor.

While the reciprocal green lanes are with destinations that used to see significant business travel traffic to and from Singapore pre-pandemic, Bertrand Saillet, managing director for Asia, FCM Travel Solutions cautioned against high hopes of a quick recovery.

Saillet: rebound may be sped up with green lanes between Asia and Europe as well as the US

“The rebound will be slow and we do not expect to see recovery anytime soon, especially with second wave recurrence of the virus in some of these destinations,” he said, adding that “meaningful resumption for international business travel remains uncertain as consumer confidence is still weak”.

For significant business travel activity to resume among FCM’s Asia-based clients, Saillet said travel must be permitted to Europe or the US.

“Travel has an opportunity to return to acceptable levels only if there is relaxation of quarantine measures for most of Asia, Europe and the US, with companies and their travellers able to mitigate and accept a balanced travel-risk ratio,” he opined.

Calm the hearts
While the green lanes “might ease the challenges corporations face at this time”, Carl Jones, vice president and head of travel, SAP Concur Asia Pacific and Greater China, emphasised that business travellers must first feel confident about travelling and that their health and safety are taken into account.

“According to the SAP Concur 2020 APAC Business Traveller survey, ensuring personal health and safety while traveling is most important to Asia-Pacific travellers, with 67 per cent placing it in their top three considerations,” said Jones.

Companies’ more prudent approach now to risk management could also deter corporate travel revival, opined Saillet.

“One of the most critical influence for business travel at the moment is a vaccine and without one, many companies are unwilling to put their employees at risk unless the travel is deemed absolutely critical,” he explained.

At the same time, there are also companies that recognise the impracticality of restrictive travel conditions to support zero-risk policies. “There is no zero-risk when considering international travel,” remarked Saillet. “These zero-risk policies do not support business continuity and the impact on the economy is too great to be sustainable.”

For companies looking to resume business travel activity, “continuous and thorough travel risk assessment and management” on a regular basis are needed.

“Companies also have to find a better balance between government regulations around travel, their travellers’ acceptance and preparation to risk, and (rely on) qualified travel management companies that are able to support and help them prepare for their trip,” he said.

Complex underlayers
In facilitating business trips to China from his offices in the US and Asia, Peter Koh, Asia strategic sourcing manager, travel and professional services with Corning, Inc., discovered that green lanes only looked good on the surface.

“When you go into the details of these arrangements, you may decide against making that business trip,” Koh remarked.

Koh: pay attention to green lane requirements

“The visa application process on China’s part, for example, is extremely tedious. The traveller needs to produce a company invitation letter, which can be done easily. However, this has to be accompanied by an approval letter from China’s provincial or municipal Foreign Affairs Office or the Department of Commerce, which alone can take weeks to obtain. Travellers to China also need to clear a PCR test and submit that negative result with the visa application. PCR tests are pricey and slots are not so easily available. Altogether, it can take a company about a month to know if it can send a staff to China for work,” he explained.

Additional hurdles include government restrictions on flights into China as well as a second PCR test upon arrival in China and up to two days of quarantine in a designated facility until negative results are determined.

Illustrating a scenario, Koh said: “Let’s say my flight leaves Singapore every Monday to Shanghai. Once in Shanghai, I will need to take a PCR test and stay in for 48 hours pending results. If I am clean, I can proceed to my meetings or assignments on Thursday morning. That leaves me with just two days to get work done. Nobody will meet me on weekends so I will have nothing to do, and no leisurely detours will be allowed since we have to abide by an approved itinerary. Then, come Monday, I will fly home where I will need to take another swab test on my own dime and possibly undergo quarantine.

“All that trouble and costs for just two actual days of business activity does not make business sense.”

Saillet recalled a rush of excitement among his corporate clients when Singapore’s first green lane was announced with China in June but that was soon dampened by process complexity.

“The arduous application-approval process and rigorous quarantine measures will continue to play a part in a business traveller’s decision on resuming travel to these destinations,” he said.

For Singapore residents wanting to travel to Brunei, they must have a SafeTravel Pass approval letter, a negative PCR test result at least 72 hours before departure, a valid return air ticket, valid proof of payment for post-arrival swab test as well as proof of installation of BruHealth app on their phone; submit a pre-trip health and travel history declaration; and have a valid visa (for visa-required passport holders). Upon arrival in Brunei, a PCR test awaits and travellers will remain in isolation at the pre-declared accommodation until the test results are out.

Details for Singapore departures to South Korea are not available, but a press statement by the city-state’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated September 2 listed pre-departure and post-arrival testing as well as adherence to a controlled itinerary for the first 14 days in the receiving country as some safeguards that eligible travellers must abide by.

Because of the complexity of visa applications and travel requirements, Koh believes that most companies would only allow travel for business-critical purposes – which are few and far between.

Jones: virtual meetings may remain the best solution for corporates that need fluid travel and business arrangements

Commenting on SAP Concur’s approach to business travel, Jones said: “Business travel is limited to that which is pre-approved as business-critical. Our main priority is to keep our employees safe.”

Out with flexible meeting itineraries
While business travellers may be used to updating their meeting plans on the go, this practice will have to change with the need to abide by a pre-approved itinerary.

“Travel managers should review the travel patterns for their company in 2019, and work out with functional leads where their organisation will require essential travel in 2020/21 that doesn’t need a dynamic itinerary,” advised Jones.

“Essential business trips that may need more fluid travel (arrangements) might be better served through a virtual meeting,” he added.

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