Dian Septiari – As Indonesia now leads the tally of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in Southeast Asia, it appears to be showing an interest in following steps taken by its neighboring countries to ease cross-border travel restrictions.
The government announced 1,031 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the total number of confirmed infections nationwide to 41,431 with 2,276 deaths, both the highest in Southeast Asia. Indonesia's daily infection rate has now increased by around 1,000 new cases on average in the past week, which the government attributed to improved testing and tracing capabilities.
As the country continues to record among the lowest testing rates in the region at 1.2 tests per 1,000 population as of June 15 according to ourworldindata.org, it has now begun easing restrictions and is seemingly looking into creating a "travel bubble".
The term "travel bubble" or "travel corridor" refers to an agreement in which countries that are successfully containing the outbreak can open their borders to each other to allow free movement within the bubble.
Earlier this month, Singapore said it would announce a "fast lane" arrangement with China, while Thailand was in talks to create travel bubbles for tourism that would allow the quarantine-free flow of people between Bangkok and a few cities in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said Indonesia was paying close attention to such a trend, but officials were still discussing ways to have such a "travel corridor".
The Office of the Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister has been discussing the issue with the Foreign Ministry, as well as the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry, with an official saying that they had specifically looked to China, South Korea, Japan and Australia to boost Indonesia's tourism recovery.
"The four countries were chosen because many tourists and foreign investors in Indonesia come from those countries," the office's undersecretary for tourism and creative economy, Odo Manuhutu, said on Friday.
Indonesia saw its visitors from China declining by 72.33 percent, South Korea by 41.65 percent, Japan by 45,57 percent and Australia by 33,93 percent in the first quarter of 2020 from the same period last year according to Statistics Indonesia (BPS) data. In general, the country has recorded a 45.01 percent decline in foreign visitors over the same period.
Despite the plan, Odo said businesspeople would probably be the first and only ones to travel to and from those countries in the near future, as he pinned hopes that tourists would gradually follow.
Odo said the Foreign Ministry was still discussing the requirements for the establishment of travel bubbles before signing an agreement with the four countries.
Epidemiologist Dicky Budiman said Indonesia was not up to par with China, Australia, South Korea and Japan in terms of its COVID-19 response, let alone creating travel corridors.
"The idea of travel bubbles, or COVID-19 corridors, is actually opening borders or entrances between countries that are equal in terms of pandemic control while having strong economic and tourism relations. There's a certain level of trust there," he said on Tuesday.
He added that the basis to negotiate a travel bubble was when countries had no new cases, and currently in the Asia Pacific region, only Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan meet the criteria. Meanwhile, in ASEAN, he said, only Vietnam and Thailand were so far fit for the plan to create travel bubbles.
For Indonesia, the most realistic plan was to have strict COVID-19 control on selected islands such as Bali, but only after authorities expanded and improved testing, tracing and isolation within the next month, Dicky said.
As the country enters the so-called new normal, the COVID-19 task force is continuously mapping regions into three categories: green zones, or cities and regencies not recording any confirmed COVID-19 cases; yellow zones, or low-risk regions with contained spread but with possible transmission; and red zones.
However, Tri Yunis Miko, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said the maps had only portrayed surveillance data of certain regions rather than a look into how far the virus had actually spread in its population.
He said a further antibody study was important to discover the percentage of the population who had contracted and were still infected by the virus.
Only then could the government start mapping regions it might open to tourists, but even then there would always be the possibility of transmission, Tri said.
"If it's because of the economy, then the protocols must be stricter [...] If they want to take a risk, then each country should equally take the risk," he said.
Tri said the health protocols must be made equal between partnering countries, including PCR tests and a 14-day mandatory quarantine with health authorities also monitoring tourists' health conditions daily while tracking their movements through their phones.
For business purposes, quarantine might not be mandatory but foreigners must not stay longer than one week, which was also the incubation period of the virus, he said.
COVID-19 task force chief Doni Monardo said the government was still mulling over reopening tourism spots, including by assessing places into low-risk and high-risk areas. As for Bali, Doni said the local administration had requested not to reopen the resort island as it looked into improving testing capacity in its port.
"We're certain that with caution, we'll rebuild the trust of domestic and foreign tourists in choosing their desired tourism spots," he said.
Indonesia Tourism Intellectuals Association (ICPI) chairman Azril Azahari said he doubted foreign tourists' trust in visiting Indonesia could be rebuilt soon as long as the country did not come up to par with other countries in terms of health protocols and COVID-19 containment efforts.
– Ardila Syakriah and Ghina Ghaliya contributed to the report