Travel curbs falling across Asia Pacific

Travel curbs falling across Asia Pacific

Countries in dire need of economic lift opening up cautiously to vaccinated travellers

A woman with a suitcase uses the Trace Together app on her phone at a scanning point to enter the Jewel Changi Airport mall in Singapore on Oct 3. (Bloomberg Photo)
A woman with a suitcase uses the Trace Together app on her phone at a scanning point to enter the Jewel Changi Airport mall in Singapore on Oct 3. (Bloomberg Photo)

Some of the world’s longest and toughest Covid-induced border curbs are finally being eased, with Asia Pacific countries taking their firmest steps yet toward reopening to international travel in recent days.

From Singapore to Sydney, Bali to Bangkok, authorities have announced a flurry of plans to welcome vaccinated travellers by drastically reducing or completely removing quarantine requirements in place for most of the pandemic.

For these places, the easing is a significant shift toward opening up just as the traditional year-end holiday travel season approaches.

“For double-vaccinated people around the world, Sydney, New South Wales is open for business,”  New South Wales state Premier Dominic Perrottet declared on Friday, as Australia’s most populous state announced it would waive the 14-day quarantine for travellers that has been in place for months from November. “We want people back.”

Lengthy quarantine for travellers was a signature of much of the region’s containment playbook, with quarantines of as long as 21 days in some places catching most infections at the border. Until the Delta variant came along, the strategy helped places like China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore all but eliminate the virus at one point.

For countries like Thailand and Malaysia, such quarantines helped keep cases from overwhelming the population for a time. But those strict rules left the region falling behind as the rest of the world started reopening months ago after vaccination.

The United States, meanwhile, announced on Friday that it would lift travel restrictions for fully vaccinated foreign nationals effective from Nov 8. That could give a huge lift to ravel sentiment generally, while bringing an end to a patchwork of rules that travellers said were inconsistent.

In Australia, the move by New South Wales move followed announcements by Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore earlier in the month to either do away with restrictions on who can enter or ease quarantine rules on entry.

Singapore, trying to move on to living with Covid, in the past week announced quarantine-free travel for vaccinated travellers from countries in Europe, Asia and the US. It has also signalled that more countries will be added to the list. Travel, transport and trade are critical for the city-state, a global financial hub and an important gateway to the rest of Asia.

Earlier this week Thailand said that from Nov 1 it would scrap quarantines for vaccinated travellers from five low-risk countries including the US, China and the UK. More nations will be added to the list gradually as the country seeks to revive its tourism-reliant economy after an earlier experiment involving Phuket was deemed successful.

Indonesia is also reopening borders further, allowing inoculated visitors from more countries to enter and imposing a shorter quarantine period. The country reopened tourist spot Bali, as well as Batam and Bintan islands, to foreign visitors this week.

The Philippines has exempted fully vaccinated visitors from low-risk places from quarantines at designated facilities.

The drive to reopen is picking up pace as more and more of the so-called Covid-Zero countries abandon their virus elimination strategies. Authorities from New Zealand to Singapore are now finding ways to accept Covid as endemic.

Also driving the decisions to reopen across the region are rising vaccination rates, a growing consensus that the far more infectious Delta variant has rendered containment regimes less effective, and the urgency to revive export and tourism-dependent economies that have languished for nearly two years.

For residents in Asia, the easing of travel curbs can’t come soon enough. Tales of tragedy and separation, and outrageous attempts to circumvent border rules — one man sailed 6,000 kilometres to get home to Australia to renew his residency visa — were becoming increasingly common.

The nascent reopening has boosted stocks of businesses like the Australian airline Qantas and triggered rallies in the Thai baht. In travel-starved Singapore, the enthusiasm to venture out of the tiny island is so high that customers swamped the websites of Singapore Airlines and other travel services in the scramble for tickets.

Some other places in the region, like New Zealand and South Korea, have not yet reached high enough vaccination levels to reopen, but their governments have signalled that they intend to follow suit once inoculation levels are sufficient.

The outlier is China. The world’s second largest economy remains the last stalwart of Covid Zero and has indicated no plan to lift its border control, one of the strictest in the world. That has also complicated efforts for financial hub Hong Kong to keep up with regional rivals like Singapore, as the city has made clear it is aligned with Beijing’s virus policy.

Unlike the US, governments in Asia seeking to reopen are treading cautiously. Singapore has had to rein in the easing of some social restrictions to give its healthcare system time to prepare for the growing number of infections.

Tension on the ground is also high as populations used to a zero-tolerance approach are now being asked to see infections as commonplace. Authorities will have to walk a fine line between answering the growing calls for greater freedoms of movement, and assuaging the concerns of residents concerned about experiencing Covid’s ravages seen elsewhere.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to downplay any imminent reopening to visitors after the New South Wales announcement, saying the federal government will decide when the border will open for international tourists. Not all of Australia is open — one could get into Sydney from London without quarantine with the latest announcement, but not to other parts of the country.

And there is always the risk, as has happened during this pandemic, that a new variant emerges to derail these nascent reopening plans. But the realisation is growing that turning back may no longer be an option.

“Each country is different but I think that we have shown that even with the most draconian of mask mandates and strict restrictions, the virus will continue to spread,” said Paul Tambyah, the Singapore-based president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

“The key has to be vaccination with effective vaccines and protecting the vulnerable.”

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