Social media feeds have recently been filled with photos of happy travellers, many taking their first overseas trips since the start of the pandemic.
Ski holidays in Switzerland. Beach breaks in Thailand. That long-promised family trip to Disney World.
In fact, so many travellers are hitting the road that experts are predicting ongoing travel chaos as the industry struggles to cope in the face of reduced capacity and decreased workforces.
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‘A highly uneven recovery’
A scroll through UNWTO’s Destination Tracker reveals most places reliant on tourism dollars have dropped quarantine restrictions and are welcoming travellers – albeit some still with a few caveats such as mandatory Covid-19 tests on arrival, tests before you fly, mandatory quarantines for positive tests and so on.
But while most of world’s popular destinations have reopened, there are a few tourism favorites still off limits to leisure travellers regardless of their willingness to vaccinate, test and quarantine.
And the bulk of them are in the Asia-Pacific region.
Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), comprising 650 member organisations, including government tourism bodies, travel agencies and airports, said recovery from the pandemic in uneven.
“We are beginning to see the early signs of a recovery with markets such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and Cambodia relaxing their restrictions and initiating a recovery,” PATA CEO Liz Ortiguera said.
“However, there remains a number of major markets in the region that are virtually closed from an international capacity perspective. The region as a whole is experiencing a highly uneven recovery.”
Japan eases entry restrictions – tourists still left out
Tourists keen to hit Tokyo’s fish markets have to wait a bit longer for their sushi fix.
Japan continues to relax strict entry measures – the daily new arrivals limit was raised to 10,000 persons effective April 10, 2022 – but this does not include leisure tourists.
For the moment, citizens, residents, researchers, students, residents’ family members and business travellers with prior approval can enter. Some face quarantine, depending on where they are arriving from.
So when will Japan reopen to holidaymakers? The question came up during an April 8 press conference by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida but no specific plan was announced.
“We will have to continue to make appropriate decisions based on the infection situation and international movements in each country,” he said. “It has not been determined yet.”
China battles to contain outbreaks
Much has been said about how the world’s tourism economy will not truly recover until China’s citizens are able to travel abroad again.
In 2019, the number of outbound tourists from China hit 155 million, according to the China Tourism Academy, making it the world’s largest market for outbound travel.
For now, Chinese citizens are strongly discouraged from traveling abroad and those who do face at least two weeks of quarantine on return, sometimes more.
But what about foreign tourists willing to put in the quarantine time in return for a holiday?
Those wishing to fulfill their lifelong dream of walking along the Great Wall will have to wait. Foreign nationals are currently not permitted to enter for leisure tourism.
As for a reopening timeline, last October the head of the Chinese Centere for Disease Control and Prevention said China may open its borders after it vaccinates more than 85 per cent of its population “by early 2022.”
While that vaccination target has been met, the country remains committed to its zero-COVID strategy as it struggles to contain outbreaks in several cities, making it highly unlikely global tourists will be welcomed back soon.
Macao not ready, HK eases the door open a crack
Bad news for travellers wanting to hit the tables in Asia’s most famous gambling destination. Macao has shown no signs of opening its borders to the world any time soon.
Tourists are still prohibited from entering the special administrative region, with the exception of visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan who must quarantine for two weeks unless arriving from certain Chinese cities.
One government news release issued in mid-April said business travellers and students from outside mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong will soon be permitted to enter but few details have been given.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong officials announced that, from May 1, the city will allow non-residents to enter for the first time in more than two years.
While technically it will be possible to visit as a tourist, a 7-day quarantine awaits and flight cancellations are a regular occurrence.
No firm reopening date from Taiwan
Taiwan, one of Asia’s favorite culinary destinations, has been easing its travel restrictions over the past two months.
Foreign business travellers have been allowed to the island since March 7. Since April 12, foreign relatives and Taiwan residents with a valid alien resident certificate have been able to apply to visit as well.
Other travellers now welcome include those with a work/study visa, those coming for investment or business purposes, or visitors entering on humanitarian grounds.
They are all subjected to 10 days of hotel or home quarantine.
Leisure tourists, however, are still unable to visit.
As more destinations reopen their borders, Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung said in February that the island had to consider easing travel restrictions so it wouldn’t lag behind in economic development.
Without offering a concrete reopening date, Chen also said current restrictions would be further lifted and non-business travellers will be allowed entry if the spread of the virus remains under control.
Several Pacific islands remain off limits
According to “Asia’s Travel-Ready Index 2022” report released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) last week, island nations including Vanuatu and Fiji are among the most dependent on tourism in the region.
Fiji, where tourism accounts for 40 per cent of the economy, reopened in late 2021.
It tops the EIU’s travel-readiness index, which looks at the three factors that might affect international tourists’ sentiment: vaccination coverage in the destination; the ease of traveling to the destination; and quarantine requirements when they return to their place of residence.
Other Pacific island destinations that have reopened to tourists include Tahiti, Palau and the Cook Islands.
But a number of places in this region remain closed to holidaymakers, including Samoa, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.
PATA CEO Ortiguera notes that circumstances are unique and each destination needs to judge its readiness to reconnect with the outside world as they manage the challenging balance of lives versus livelihoods.
“And to borrow an analogy used during a recent WHO briefing – each nation must navigate their unique path down the mountain from this pandemic impact,” she says.
“If I look at Singapore as an example, the nation aggressively managed down COVID transmissions and is now navigating a successful exit to reopen the market. I’m confident that these measures have laid a strong foundation for a sustained recovery.”