Asia opens its doors to travel – except for China


Hong Kong (CNN) — Across Asia, borders are opening and quarantine measures are being lifted as even the last countries clinging to Covid restrictions embrace a return to travel.

Except, that is to say, in one country: China.

After seeing their economies battered by nearly three years of travel shutdowns, several countries in the region have reopened in recent months, bringing relief not just to their tourism industries, but to millions of struggling residents. with job insecurity and family separations during the pandemic.

But in China – which has seen its own economy suffer from a strict zero Covid policy involving tight border controls, instant lockdowns and mandatory quarantines – there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the restrictions, despite mounting frustration. public.

Hopes that Beijing might ease policy after the much-anticipated Communist Party Congress later this month dashed after the state-run People’s Daily described the approach as the ‘best bet’ on Tuesday. .

“At times like this, we must realize that the ‘zero-Covid momentum’ is enduring and must be followed,” he said in a comment, highlighting the ongoing outbreaks in the country.

He added that the zero-Covid policy had minimized the economic impact of the virus and helped keep the death rate low. “We cannot relax prevention and control (measures),” he said.

As China pursues its zero Covid policy, a new video shows armed guards standing outside an airport to enforce it, more than two years after the pandemic began. CNN’s Erin Burnett reports.

Parts of East Asia are opening up

China’s stance means it is an outlier even in East Asia, where governments have been the slowest to end Covid restrictions.

For much of the pandemic, zero-Covid was the norm across much of the region – with many countries and territories continuing to restrict even when vaccines became widely available in 2021.

Hong Kong – a semi-autonomous Chinese city that has separate border policies from the mainland – ended what was once one of the world‘s strictest quarantine agreements in September. The decision was celebrated by vacation-starved residents, business owners and tourism-dependent government departments.

Also in September, the self-governing island of Taiwan opened up again by resuming visa-free entry for visitors from countries including the United States and the European Union. It came after the government reduced its mandatory quarantine from seven to three days for international arrivals from June.

People walk on a shopping street in a tourist district of Kyoto, Japan on October 11.

Fred Mery/AFP/Getty Images

Japan, one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, reopened to much fanfare in June 2022 – although it is only allowing tourists to come in organized groups rather than as individuals.

Tourists have been slow to return and, perhaps sensing the unpopularity of this approach, Japan relented in September, opening its doors to individual tourists with no daily limit on the number of entrants.

The results were quick, with Trip.com, a Singapore-based international travel service provider, reporting an increase in bookings and searches for Japan that month. The biggest spike came from South Korea, which saw a 194% increase in bookings in Japan, but similar increases were reported in European countries like Spain, Germany and the UK. .

South Korea lifted quarantine requirements for all international travelers, regardless of nationality and vaccination status, in June.

And it seems the offer paid off. The country recorded nearly 311,000 arrivals, more than half of them tourists, in August, compared to just 97,000 arrivals during the same period last year, according to the Korea Statistical Information Service.

Hong Kong is trying to revitalize itself after the Covid-19 pandemic by bringing back many tourist attractions. CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout reports.

Southeast Asia’s head start

Some Southeast Asian countries, whose economies rely heavily on tourism, got a head start on their East Asian counterparts by starting to open up last year – and are already reaping the rewards the fruits.

Vietnam began allowing foreign travelers to visit designated places under a vaccine passport program last November and fully reopened in March, three months earlier than originally planned.

In 2019, tourism accounted for 12% of the country’s GDP and authorities are eager to return to those pre-pandemic levels. Vietnam welcomed 1.87 million international visitors in the first nine months of this year, 16 times more than the same period in 2021, according to government statistics.
Travelers queue at the Vietnam Airlines JSC counter at Incheon International Airport in South Korea on September 8, 2022.

Travelers queue at the Vietnam Airlines JSC counter at Incheon International Airport in South Korea on September 8, 2022.

Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“All indicators of the tourism industry have miraculously recovered,” said Nguyen Trung Khanh, director general of Vietnam’s National Tourism Administration, according to government news site VietnamNet.

“Thanks to the explosion of domestic tourists after the Covid-19 epidemic, after half of the year, the industry has already achieved the objectives set for the full year.”

Thailand began allowing fully vaccinated travelers last November, under a program that was briefly suspended when the Omicron variant spread. It relaunched the program earlier this year and has continued to ease restrictions in recent months.

Tourists and locals browse a street market in <a class=Phuket, Thailand on October 2.”/>

Tourists and locals browse a street market in Phuket, Thailand on October 2.

André Malerba/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In the fall, Thai officials were celebrating. More than a million tourists arrived in September alone, government spokeswoman Anucha Burapachaisri said – and the government hopes to reach 10 million visitors for the whole year.

It is still below pre-pandemic levels; Thailand welcomed nearly 40 million visitors in 2019. But the country is firmly on the road to recovery, with tourism expected to reach 80% of pre-pandemic levels by next year, according to Burapachaisri.

Even with the global economic downturn, Thailand isn’t too worried. “During the winter, European tourists want to escape the cold in Thailand,” the country’s finance minister, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, said in October.
Customers at a bar in Phuket, Thailand on September 30.

Customers at a bar in Phuket, Thailand on September 30.

André Malerba/Bloomberg/Getty Images

China the strange man

Such reopenings stand in stark contrast to the situation in mainland China, where people have grown accustomed to the possibility of being caught in instant lockdowns.

China last week banned Xinjiang’s 22 million people from leaving the region amid a Covid-19 outbreak – just weeks after it began easing restrictions from an earlier lockdown.

Tourist hotspots have also been hit – the ancient city of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, imposed an instant lockdown after discovering just two cases. The city of Zhangjiajie, home to a scenic national park, went into lockdown for just one case. And last week, hundreds of tourists were stranded at an airport in Xishuangbanna prefecture, Yunnan province, due to an instant lockdown.

Residents stand behind a cordon line at a fruit stall in Tianshan district of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, September 5.

Residents stand behind a cordon line at a fruit stall in Tianshan district of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, September 5.

Str/Reuters

Officials are on high alert less than a week before China’s ruling Communist Party holds its two-decade national congress, where leader Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term in office that breaks the norm.

The country’s authorities have been scrambling to ease preparations for the congress – a particularly sensitive time – by tightening already strict Covid rules and declaring more lockdowns.

There are other signs that zero-Covid might be here to stay. Earlier this week, authorities in Shanghai’s Pudong district posted online that they were seeking to hire more than 500 Covid workers on a two-year contract to carry out “community prevention and control work”.

The post was posted on the district office’s official WeChat account and seen by CNN, but has since been deleted.

State media has also stepped up its zero-Covid advocacy in recent days. In a separate comment published on Wednesday, the People’s Daily claimed that some countries had reopened because they had no choice after failing to “effectively control the epidemic in a timely manner”.

He argued that the outbreaks in the United States and Japan were evidence of the “serious consequences” of easing restrictions – despite both countries having seen their cases decline since the peak of the summer.

“Only by insisting on dynamic zero-Covid can we avoid huge losses caused by an uncontrollable epidemic,” read the commentary. “It is precisely through our insistence on dynamic zero-Covid that we have maximally protected people’s lives and health.”

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