Key Covid holdouts in Asia drop border restrictions

HONG KONG — After two and a half years of tight pandemic controls, some of Asia’s last remnants are opening their borders to bolster their economies and catch up with a world that has largely learned to live with Covid.

Hong Kong said Friday it would waive mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming to the city from next week, following a similar move by Taiwan. Japan said it would lower its daily limit on arrivals and fully open its doors to tourists on October 11.

This week’s spate of movements has left only one major country with tight border controls: China, where the ruling Communist Party still clings to its “zero-Covid” policy. Those traveling to China, mostly residents, will still face a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.

As the pandemic swept the world in early 2020, many governments in Asia quickly closed their borders, and most places locked out anyone who wasn’t a resident. Reopening was an arduous and slow process as officials worried about the vulnerability of their elderly population and feared their healthcare systems would collapse.

But the isolation is hard to bear, especially now that much of the rest of the world has fully reopened. Cut off from affluent tourists and facing economic headwinds, business leaders are putting increasing pressure on officials in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan to reconsider their policies.

Over the past two years, Japan and Hong Kong have failed to host large global gatherings central to their identities as key hubs in the region.

The Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for August 2020, took place a year later, but only for local spectators. Big, splashy Hong Kong events like Art Basel, rugby sevens and regional financial conferences have been canceled as the city remained closed to non-residents.

The pandemic perspective is shifting. Even though Covid cases have increased in many parts of Asia, hospitalizations and deaths have declined as newer strains of Covid-19 are proving to be milder. In many places, authorities have accepted higher case numbers as their vaccination rates have increased.

Last week, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the end of the pandemic was “in sight”, underscoring the collective willingness of many governments to envision a world beyond Covid-19.

“I am aware of the fact that while we are controlling the spread of Covid, we also need to ensure that there is maximum community activity and economic activity for society to keep going,” Hong Kong’s supreme leader John Lee said this week ahead of Friday’s relaxation of rules.

It was the most blatant admission yet that the strict rules closely tied to mainland China’s pandemic policies came at a price officials were no longer willing to tolerate.

Hong Kong has had one of the strictest quarantine requirements for much of the pandemic, with 21 days of mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals at one point. On Friday, officials announced a new policy, due to take effect next week, that would only require visitors to undergo several days of PCR testing and health surveillance.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recognized the importance of international tourists to the country’s survival.

“People around the world have been asking when we can travel to Japan,” Mr Kishida said on Wednesday, before the new rules were announced, according to public broadcaster NHK. “Now I hope they plan to visit Japan and get a taste of Japanese cuisine.”

In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen said people are ready to reconnect with the rest of the world.

“Finally the last moment of the pandemic has come,” Ms Tsai wrote on her Facebook page. “Now we must make every effort to revitalize tourism, stimulate the economy, and lead Taiwan’s economy to rapid development.”

With borders restricted, tourism has been slow to return in much of the region. Once a major air transport hub, Hong Kong “was now practically off the map,” said Willie Walsh, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association, in April. Hong Kong International Airport reported just 5,080 passenger flights in August, compared to 30,000 passenger flights in the same month in 2019.

In 2019, Japan took in around US$46.1 billion from overseas tourism, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. Virtually all of this disappeared after the pandemic began.

Before its latest move, Japan had been trying in spurts to kick-start tourism. In June, the government changed border rules, allowing in tourists who agreed to join guided tours booked through travel agencies. In September, it changed the rules again but still kept visitors on a tight leash.

Things got off to a slow start: only 12,405 tourists entered the country in June, according to government figures.

Japan’s reopening could unleash a tide of pent-up travel demand and give the country’s travel and hospitality sector a much-needed boost. Almost 32 million international tourists visited Japan in 2019, three times the number six years ago, according to government data.

However, inbound tourism is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels any time soon. Chinese visitors, who accounted for around 30 percent of Japan’s inbound traffic in 2019, are severely restricted in their ability to travel under Beijing’s strict Covid guidelines.

Domestically, Japan plans to boost tourism by offering Japanese residents government-subsidized discounts on hotels, restaurants and some types of entertainment, Mr. Kishida said. It’s a revival of a plan called “Go to Travel” that its predecessor instituted to boost domestic tourism after it was wiped out in the early months of the pandemic.

Hong Kong will also find it difficult to recover quickly. She is caught in a balancing act between demands from Beijing, which has the final say over what the city does, and the international community. So it cannot go as far as its neighbors when it comes to opening.

Although the new rules represent a significant change, they will still bar visitors from visiting restaurants and bars during three days of mandatory health surveillance, raising the question of whether they will be enough to attract tourists who come for a short visit.

The approach will be tested in the coming weeks when global bank chiefs are due to convene for a summit touted as proof that Hong Kong still deserves its self-proclaimed title of “Asia’s world city”. It will also host a fintech conference and November’s Rugby Sevens, an annual tournament that was one of the city’s biggest events before the pandemic.

However, whether the mainland changes its strict rules will mostly matter for the many small businesses that have come to depend on Chinese tourists.

“Politics won’t really help us because our business is heavily influenced by mainland tourists, whose consumption power is stronger than those from Europe and America,” said Wang Tat, 50, who owns a seafood restaurant on Lamma Island serving local delicacies. like crab fried with ginger and mussels in black bean sauce.

“I expect more European and American tourists to come and our business to get better, but our revenue is unlikely to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels,” Mr Wong said, adding that he manages most of his business lost during the pandemic pandemic.

Asian governments are all dependent on economic aid.

Japan’s economy has slowly recovered, malls are filling malls and families are eating out. But the yen’s plunge, which is hovering around its weakest level in nearly 25 years, has been painful for domestic consumers.

In Hong Kong, thousands of small businesses have shut their doors as they have been unable to recover from multiple rounds of social distancing measures that have forced restaurants and bars to remain closed for weeks or months. The tough measures, along with a crackdown on opposition in the former British colony, have prompted young Hong Kongers, expatriates and multinationals to leave the city permanently.

While Taiwan’s economy has remained relatively healthy thanks to its semiconductor industry, tourism has suffered. Taiwan has limited arrivals during the pandemic, and non-residents have been unable to travel there at all for a while. In 2019, 11.8 million tourists visited Taiwan, compared to 140,479 the year before.

“The dark days of waiting for overseas trips are finally over,” said April Lin, 36, a Taiwanese tour guide in downtown Taichung. “For many in the tourism industry, it’s some much-needed rain.”

Alexandra Stevenson reported from Hong Kong and Ben Dooley from Tokyo. Hisako Ueno contributed coverage from Tokyo, Zixu Wang from Hong Kong and Amy ChangChien from Taipei, Taiwan.

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