BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — ASEAN leaders on Thursday agreed to start planning a regional travel corridor to facilitate essential business travel in the region, with hopes of speeding up economic recovery in Southeast Asia.  

The regional grouping said the establishment of the travel corridor framework will build on the existing efforts of individual ASEAN member states in developing bilateral green lanes.

In a joint declaration issued at the 37th ASEAN Summit, the leaders stressed the need to develop a common set of pre-departure and post-arrival health measures to protect the safety of citizens and control the spread of COVID-19.

If all member states proceed with the travel corridor arrangement, essential travellers may be exempted from COVID-19 quarantine restrictions in the region.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo hoped the region-wide travel corridor will be set up in the first quarter of 2021, according to news reports.

ASEAN did not rule out the extension of the framework to other categories of travel in the future.

But the feasibility of regional travel by next year remains unclear, with the pandemic in different stages in Southeast Asian countries.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia continue to report over 1,000 new cases daily, while Thailand and Vietnam are marking single-digit cases. Brunei has not reported any new cases since October 14.

Welcoming the move during the virtual ASEAN meeting hosted by Vietnam, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah said building bilateral and regional travel arrangements is encouraged to allow professionals to move safely and without risk to their health.

Earlier in June, the sultan had called for the easing of travel restrictions in the region as part of ASEAN’s COVID-19 economic recovery plan.

Singapore is currently the only country Brunei has agreed to resume limited international travel since the sultanate restricted outbound travel on March 16.

There are only a few reciprocal green lanes in the region, with Singapore hashing out bilateral agreements with Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

However most ASEAN countries remain closed to each other, exacerbating economic downturn in the region. Given the Southeast Asia’s heavy reliance on tourists, foreign investments and trade, cross-border travel is key to post-COVID recovery.

The ASEAN Coordinating Council, supported by the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies, is tasked to coordinate and oversee the development of the travel corridor arrangement.

In another joint declaration on Thursday, the leaders vowed to use digital tools to promote tourism amid the coronavirus crisis.

The heads of government encouraged the adoption of digital solutions to ease travel facilitation such as moving to contactless immigration processes and implementing mobile contact tracing applications during the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 hit, tourist arrivals in ASEAN grew five percent last year.