An Asiana Airlines plane is seen through the window at Incheon Airport‘s Terminal 1. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s first travel bubble with Saipan kicked off quietly on Saturday morning with just a handful of passengers traveling under the scheme amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections.
Two flights from Asiana Airlines and low-cost carrier Jeju Air departed from Incheon Airport for the main island in the Northern Mariana island chain.
Though a total of 92 passengers were on board both flights, only six people on board the Asiana flight were traveling under the quarantine-free travel arrangement. The remaining passengers were residents or students, according to the transport ministry database.
South Korea touted its first travel bubble agreement with Saipan in June, which was hailed as the beginning of quarantine-free international travel for South Koreans amid the pandemic.
The plan to let fully vaccinated people travel in group tours while staying at designated hotels was meant to help the tourism sector without risking the spread of the virus.
But only a handful of people enjoyed the scheme on its opening day as the situation surrounding the pandemic has worsened in recent weeks.
When the travel bubble with Saipan was announced on June 30, the number of daily domestic COVID-19 cases stood at 759.
The count for locally transmitted cases on Sunday was 1,422, nearly double the figure from three and a half weeks ago.
“Airlines are doing their best since the beginning of the pandemic to follow COVID-19 prevention guidelines by disinfecting the planes and leaving space between seats when possible,” said one airline official who requested anonymity.
“With the vaccination rates rising, we should continue to form travel bubbles between safe countries to allow more traveling,” the official said.
In light of the fourth wave of infections, airlines are also exercising flexibility with their cancellation policies for domestic flights.
Korean Air and Asiana Airlines are allowing travelers to cancel their flights free of charge for trips between late July and early August. They had to have been booked before July 23.
Jeju Air is offering free cancellation for flights to places where the current social distancing level is three or above.
By Yim Hyun-su (firstname.lastname@example.org