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Travel restrictions in Asia-Pacific are slowly phasing out

Travel ban in Asia
Few Asian countries lift travel restrictions and reopen borders as they continue to boost vaccination rates. 

Some countries in Asia-Pacific are slowly venturing towards normality by easing their travel restrictions. Improved virus situation and rising rate of vaccinations have led few governments from the region to reopen their borders, particularly for vaccinated travellers from a handful of countries, in hopes of reviving their tourism industries.

However, travel in Asia has yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, but new opening plans give hope for a quicker economic recovery. Rebooting the tourism sector is highly essential particularly emerging market economies like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, as the sector is one of the key drivers of economic recovery.

According to Fitch Ratings, there has been uneven travel recovery in the region. Many key aviation markets from the APAC region, like China, Japan, Korea and Australia, are ahead in vaccination rates, that has risen sharply in recent months. However, vaccination rates remain relatively low and slow in a number of other countries, including India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Asia-Pacific region’s air passenger traffic, particularly long-haul international business travel, continues to remain severely affected by the pandemic, as per the rating agency.

But, a few countries in Asia, including Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, are lifting quarantine restrictions and travel bans to welcome back vaccinated citizens, residents, and even tourists in some cases.

Australia initiatives on lifting international travel ban

Australia, which had harsh lockdowns, is slowly starting the process of easing restrictions and allowing international travel to open up. Singapore and Australia, which have robust economic and investment links, are also progressively rebuilding travel between both countries. From November, they are planning to set up a travel bubble, to allow quarantine-free flights for fully vaccinated travellers. According to a recent update, this would initially apply to international students and business travellers, while tourists could be allowed to travel from December.

“For double-vaccinated people around the world, Sydney, New South Wales, is open for business,” said Premier Dominic Perrottet of New South Wales said on October 20.

Early in October, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined plans to lift the 19-month ban on Australian citizens and residents travelling abroad starting November. Morrison said this is part of an initiative to establish home quarantine in eight states and territories in Australia. Meanwhile, Australian Tourism Export Council said International tourists won’t be welcomed back to Australia until March 2022. According to the ministry, the priority to enter Australia would be skilled migrants and international students before tourists.

Malaysia ends travel restrictions

Malaysia could also reopen its borders in November for international tourists, and plans to open up to Singapore ‘very soon‘. Malaysia’s tourism ministry has proposed to the government to allow fully vaccinated international visitors into the island resort of Langkawi from next month onwards. On October 21, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Nancy Shukri said she’s meeting officials from Singapore next week to discuss resuming cross-border travel between the two countries.

Earlier, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the country would stop its domestic and international travel ban for residents that are fully vaccinated after reaching its goal of a 90% vaccination rate. About 71.2% of the total population has been fully vaccinated as of October 21, official data showed.

The lockdown restrictions, which closed down schools, confined people to their homes, and prohibited domestic travel, ensued public anger that led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Prime Minister Yaakob’s announcement signals a shift in the government’s strategy, which may be attributed to the country’s successful vaccine rollout. The prime minister said Malaysians may need to learn to live with Covid-19 as it may not be eliminated entirely. 

Singapore expands VTL scheme

Despite the surge of cases due to the Delta variant and posting daily record cases recently, Singapore went ahead with its quarantine-free vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme. It added eight more Western countries to the list.  

Under the scheme, fully-vaccinated travellers from Brunei and Germany were the first to be cleared by Singapore and will be followed by those from Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the US. They will be able to enter Singapore without having to undergo Covid-19 quarantine. Mutual VTLs will also be set up by South Korea with the city-state beginning November 15. 

Transport Minister S. Iswaran said the VTL schemes are part of the Singapore government’s “reclaim and rebuild” campaign. In his recent address to the nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong argued that Singapore could not remain in lockdown indefinitely. The prime minister claimed that business closures, separation of families, and job losses have caused “psychological and emotional strain and mental fatigue” to the people.

The nation has been ahead among other Asian peers, in its plan of easing restrictions as the tourism sector accounted for about 5% of the country’s GDP before the pandemic. Authorities in one of Asia’s top business hubs are keen to revive the economy now, with more than 80% of the population fully vaccinated.

Thailand removes quarantine requirements

To boost tourist inflows after almost two years of strict Covid-19 rules, Thailand has decided to allow fully vaccinated travellers from 46 countries, up from 10 previously announced. From November 1, Thailand is allowing vaccinated arrivals from low-risk countries to destinations like Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Before the pandemic, tourism was a leading driver of the economy, accounting for 12% of GDP.

Thailand’s Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) said nations like the UK, the US, Germany, China, and Singapore can enter the country without the need for quarantine. However, visitors from these countries would need to pass an RT-PCR test before their arrival. The scheme will run for an initial period between November 1 to December 31, 2021. 

As part of the initiative, provinces opened for tourism were expanded from four to 17, including Bangkok, Samut Prakan, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Krabi, and Phangnga. An additional 16 major provinces, including Lamphun, Phrae, and Sukhothai will also reopen starting December 1. CCSA spokesman Taweesilp Visanuyothin mentioned that they are yet to finalise the additional list of provinces.

The reopening of these provinces to tourists from the aforementioned countries will be a small start for people to begin earning a living again, as per Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.