Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 11 December 2020


Singapore’s Cruise Fiasco Should Be a Red Flag to Davos

As the burst travel bubble also proved, there’s little tolerance for Covid-19 risk, even after the biggest of fanfares. 

The World Economic Forum should think about how fast things can change.
The World Economic Forum should think about how fast things can change. Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty

Klaus Schwab better have a Plan B. A cruise line snafu in Singapore holds a lesson for the founder of the World Economic Forum, a talk-shop for elites and their bag-carriers that will descend on the city-state next year. 

When WEF said Monday it would move its annual meeting from Davos, Switzerland, to Singapore for May, the step was interpreted as a pat on the back for the city-state. Singapore has effectively curtailed the local spread of Covid-19 and is gradually reopening  its economy.  In-person conferences are starting to resume on a very limited scale, subject to tight regulations. Getting a lid on infections has come at great cost. Gross domestic product will sink as much as 6.5% this year, the government projects, and the critical travel and lodging industry has been crippled by border restrictions. 

That hard-won victory has underscored an incredibly risk-averse culture. There's no guarantee, despite much hype in domestic media, that the WEF gabfest will actually happen in Singapore. That’s one takeaway from the travails of the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. vessel that was forced to return to port and confine passengers to their cabins after what turned out to be a false coronavirus reading. The ship, Quantum of the Seas, was on a four-day cruise to nowhere, a scheme designed to let people get out of Singapore without exposing them to any land outside the island republic. (You can drive across the country in about 30 minutes and its citizens are avid travelers.) Passengers were allowed to disembark late Wednesday. A subsequent four-day trip on the same boat was cancelled. 

The cruise scene has had its share of problems during the pandemic that aren’t unique to Singapore. It’s laudable that Royal Caribbean and the authorities are attentive to health dangers. The 83-year-old male passenger, who tested positive onboard, was found to be negative in subsequent tests, including a re-do on the original sample, Singapore’s Ministry of Health reported. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said the the government was prepared. The false alarm, he said, “actually allowed the cruise industry to test the entire protocols to see how we can do this well, and do this better,’’ according to ChannelNewsAsia. Close contacts of the passenger have been released from quarantine. 

But it still resonated, given a jarring U-turn last month when an air travel bubble with Hong Kong was shelved, a day before the first flights were scheduled to depart and just hours after Singapore insisted the launch would proceed with added safety precautions. As I have written, the message seemed to be: The slightest element of chance and the plug gets pulled. In announcing the bubble suspension, Singapore said the accord would be reviewed in two weeks. Would-be travelers are now told to wait until next year for an update. 

Taken together, it’s easy to see the planes and boat as an example of how hard it is to kick-start tourism in the absence of effective and widely undertaken vaccinations. There’s also a deeper lesson: Almost a year into the pandemic, it’s still unwise to take any arrangement, in any place, as set in stone. The air bubble accord had clauses that would allow for suspension in the event that untraced cases in either city passed a threshold. At the time, neither had. The deal also allowed for a couple of days notice prior to suspension, but the debut was scotched at the 11th hour. 

The air bubble decision, in retrospect, looks like it was justified on substance. Hong Kong is in a fourth wave of the Covid-19 epidemic. Schools there have been closed, amid some uproar, and in-person dining prohibited from 6 p.m., among other restrictions. But the bubble-popping optics were terrible. Now, there is the ship. At some point, governments and companies who intone about the “new normal” and remind us the war against disease isn’t won have to be a little more forthright about where the battles will be fought. 

Singapore is a sovereign nation; borders and health regulations are for it to control. But the place built its success on taking risks, an essential characteristic in erecting a prosperous hub for capital and talent given the absence of a hinterland and natural resources. This isn’t just about mothballing Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey or closing a few wharves at the Port of Long Beach in California, as dire as that would be. It’s existential. 

The World Economic Forum advance folks probably saw that the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper, gave the city’s selection as the next Davos front-page billing. I hope someone told Schwab’s team that the page design and placement closely resembled the trumpeting of the travel bubble and cruises to nowhere. 

For Singapore, this is strategic, important stuff. If it’s safe, of course.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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