On board the first travel bubble flight to Singapore

By the time Singapore Airlines SQ212 departed from a still subdued Sydney Airport at 9.05am on Monday, November 8 – the first flight in the island city state’s Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) – it was clear that by the time the Airbus A350-900 touched down more than seven hours later we were going to have to love every piece of Singapore.

By “piece”, I mean pieces of paper. Lots and lots of pieces of paper. Each of them is one papyrus part of the complex Singapore VTL documentation process completed online and which must be carefully printed out, ready for close inspection at check-in in Australia and on arrival at Changi Airport.

All along the way – with VTL applications needing to be lodged no less than seven days before travel as required by the Singaporean authorities – I’ve been sure to remind myself of one thing: it’s all for a worthy cause. This paper shuffling is allowing quarantine-free travel to happen again, with all of the undeniably immense economic and social benefits that flow from that. 

If the pioneering passengers on the far from full SQ212 needed any confirmation that travel had irrevocably changed, this week’s first flight was all the evidence required.

Indeed, the latest jetsetter accessory is the document wallet as you’ll need one to keep track of everything. You must also be sufficiently computer savvy to complete every one of these forms online, including the somewhat tricky downloading of your all-important International Vaccination Certificate.

Helpfully, the Singaporeans have provided visitors with a check-list – a hefty four pages long – which the prospective tourist can use to tick off each and every completed essential task, including the requirement to secure insurance with a minimum of $30,000 to cover COVID-relayed medical expenses in the unlikely event you require them.

Even the most seasoned travellers are finding the process stressful, with one documentary oversight potentially meaning the difference between you going or not going. If you do make it through the paper and cyber trial, be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on compulsory PCR tests, which must be undertaken by a certified pathology lab along the way.

For a trip to Singapore, think of all of the COVID combating protocols and measures in Australia and then double, nay quadruple, them. It can only get easier from here.

 A PCR test is required within 48 hours of departure, with another mandated for re-entry into Australia within three days of arrival followed by a further two, at least for citizens of NSW and Victoria, 24 hours after landing and a week later.

On the ground at Changi – which was quieter than I’ve ever experienced it – the immensely reassuring and impressive Swiss-like precision of Singaporeans fully reveals itself.

After passing seamlessly through queue-free Immigration, passengers collect their luggage and are directed to take a second test and then leave the airport and isolate in a hotel until a negative result is returned.

At that point, Singapore, in all of its new-found tightly masked and widely-vaccinated glory – is all yours. But it’s not going to be quite the Singapore many of us knew and loved so well before the pandemic (but, believe me, after being so long bereft of overseas travel it will do for now).

Be careful out there. Despite boasting one of the world’s most double-dosed populations, at almost 84 per cent of the total population, the city state is still recording an average of 2851 cases of COVID a day, though the curve is bending a little.

So, has all of the effort and the expense been worth it? I had the odd doubt a quarter of the way through this exhaustive process and at times I was feeling mightily ticked off by that voluminous checklist.

But after less than 24 hours in Singapore, it feels a true privilege to be here and the flight itself was a breeze and, fortunately, the result of the on-arrival test was negative.

Singapore Airlines is offering $499 economy return airfares from Sydney and Melbourne to stimulate travel to Singapore from NSW and Victoria.

Being on the ground here in the so-called Lion City, that’s been a little deprived of its roar in recent times, makes me feel like I’m a small part of the solution to the problem of the pandemic in the sense of reinstating some normality to our society through tourism.

But I am drawing up a new checklist to remind myself to recycle all of those reams of paper when I get home.

And one more thing: wouldn’t you know it? The immigration officer at Changi barely even glanced at my carefully-arranged documents as I nervously handed them over to her.

Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He travelled to Singapore as a guest of Singapore Airlines and Marina Bay Sands. See singaporeair.com; marinabaysands.com 

See also: Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Singapore

See also: Singapore Airlines brings back superjumbo to Australian route

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