Asia’s hottest travel destinations are reopening but face a quandary: How to revive tourism without Chinese tourists

February 10, 2022, 11:00 PM UTC

Data showing that the Omicron variant has more mild symptoms and a shorter incubation period is encouraging tourism hotspots in Asia to accelerate plans to restart foreign travel in hopes of recovering from the devastating blow COVID-19 dealt to their business.

When the Omicron variant first emerged last November, governments paused their plans to reopen to the rest of the world, freezing quarantine-free travel schemes and reimposing travel restrictions.

But with greater evidence that the Omicron variant has lower rates of hospitalization and death—and perhaps recognizing that its increased transmissibility makes a stricter strategy untenable—Asian governments now have the confidence to consider a change in strategy.

Over the past few weeks, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have all pledged to reopen their borders—if they haven’t already—to international visitors in the next several months. The governments are concluding that the economic costs of staying closed outweigh the public health risks of reopening. They are hopeful that dropping restrictions will resuscitate their vital tourism sectors, but a full rebound isn’t guaranteed, especially when a large source of tourists—mainland China—remains sealed.

Plans to reopen

Thailand relaunched its quarantine-free travel scheme on Feb. 1 after a five-week pause owing to Omicron. Originally, the reopening scheme was limited to just 67 countries and territories. But now, restrictions are even looser. Fully vaccinated visitors from any country can to travel to Thailand without quarantine. The government expects nearly 300,000 tourists to travel to Thailand in February alone, and even more to arrive in following months.

Indonesia agreed to establish a quarantine-free lane for fully vaccinated Singaporeans to visit the islands of Batam and Bintan on Jan. 24, and direct international flights started landing on the resort island of Bali on Feb. 4. Tourists visiting Bali must be fully vaccinated, and spend five to seven days in quarantine in hotels or offshore vessels.

The Philippines opened to fully vaccinated foreign tourists on Feb. 10, with nationals from 157 countries allowed to travel without needing to quarantine.

And on Feb. 8, the Malaysia National Recovery Council—the body charged with helping the country recover from the pandemic—pledged to open borders to all foreign nationals by March, though it didn’t provide full details.

Economic concerns appear to be driving reopening plans, given that several of the countries are in the midst of new COVID surges. Tourism is a significant part of the countries’ economies. In 2019, 40 million tourists visited Thailand, generating approximately 11% of its GDP, according to the Bank of Thailand. Tourism is even more important to Malaysia, where the sector generated almost 16% of the country’s GDP in 2019, making it the third largest sector after manufacturing and commodities. In Bali, tourism drives 60% of the economy.

Opening up to the outside world increases the likelihood of ballooning COVID case counts, but governments have determined that the economic costs of tourism droughts pose a greater threat.

“Any public health threat requires a balance to be struck between medical necessity and the socioeconomic needs of the affected population,” says Nicholas Thomas, a health governance professor at the City University of Hong Kong. Countries are opening “themselves up to new imported infections that will, inevitably, escape the initial screening,” yet may decide that “a greater harm is being inflicted on their populations by the withdrawal of the tourists and the economic benefits that they bring in.”

In announcing Malaysia’s reopening, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who chairs the National Recovery Council, said that reopening the borders would mean that “tourists can visit [and] investors can come in.”

Moving away from COVID-zero

Australia and New Zealand—infamous for pandemic border policies so strict that even citizens had to queue for limited space on flights and in quarantine facilities—have also announced plans to reopen, though they are not throwing their doors open as widely as some of their Asian peers.

Australia will allow foreign visitors with at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to enter the country from Feb. 21, following an earlier measure to allow foreign students and skilled workers back into the country on Dec. 15.

Reopening the border is the final step in Australia’s repeal of its previous COVID-zero policy, but there’s a major caveat: The country’s individual states can still set their own entry requirements—including whether or not someone needs to quarantine. Different states have had wildly different approaches to COVID-19: Western Australia—which warded off Omicron even as the rest of the country suffered record waves of COVID—still strictly limits how many people enter the state, including from elsewhere in Australia.

Neighboring New Zealand is also slowly reopening, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern setting an October target to allow all foreign visitors into the country. International arrivals would not have to stay in the country’s quarantine facilities, but they would still need to isolate at home for 10 days.

Reopening rebound?

Even as countries drop restrictions, forecasters are not optimistic that tourists will come flooding back. In a study conducted with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Pacific Asia Travel Association predicts that international arrivals into Asia-Pacific will only reach pre-pandemic levels by 2024, in part owing to an uneven recovery from the COVID pandemic across Asia and the rest of the world. Tourism demand “will most likely still remain volatile over the next few years,” PATA CEO Liz Ortiguera said in a statement.

Previous efforts to encourage travel stumbled in part because of burdensome requirements. Bali has technically been open to foreign tourists since last November, but visitors had to find a local sponsor for their visa, and then quarantine for 10 days in Jakarta before continuing on to the resort island. There were few takers: Indonesia only issued 273 visas for Bali and the Riau Islands between Oct. 15 and Jan. 28.

Even under current travel schemes, tourists can’t hop on planes as freely as they used to. For example, those wishing to travel to Thailand without quarantine need to submit an application, prepay for two COVID tests, and hold $50,000 in travel insurance. Bill Heinecke, founder of hotel group Minor International, told Bloomberg that Thailand’s tourism recovery is “going to be tough and challenging for a while until the government changes its position.” The Philippines’ requirements are less onerous; they mandate a negative predeparture test and travel insurance covering $35,000.

The holdouts

Not every COVID-zero country has a path to reopen. While Omicron’s shorter incubation period is encouraging places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan to reduce quarantine for international arrivals, entry is still restricted to long-term residents, leaving foreign businesspeople and international students in limbo.

The biggest holdout is China, which has firmly rejected efforts to shift away from an aggressive COVID-zero strategy. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Global Times that even a high vaccination rate in China and the rest of the world may not be enough for China to change course, saying, “There’s no simple method to control” COVID.

China’s COVID-zero policy may hamper countries hoping to revive their tourism sectors. Even if Chinese tourists can enter other countries without needing to quarantine, they would still need to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel upon their return to China. It’s a significant deterrent for a population that was the foundation for the tourism sectors of several Southeast Asian countries before the pandemic. Over a quarter of tourists visiting Thailand in 2019 came from China. China was Indonesia’s second-largest and Malaysia’s third-largest source of visitors before the pandemic.

That means Chinese tourists are “key for these destinations to be sustainable in the long run,” says Haiyan Song, associate dean of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management. But China’s tourists are unlikely to want to suffer through weeks of quarantine upon their return. That will dampen the recovery of the tourism industry until China starts to open its border, which may not happen until at least “the middle of 2022,” says Song.

Thailand announced on Monday it was hoping to start negotiations with China on a travel bubble that would allow Chinese visitors to avoid quarantine in both countries.

Such an agreement may be unworkable because it “opens up a new route for the infections to flow back into China” says Thomas, which “from a Chinese perspective…still presents a risk.” Even if the bubble got off the ground, he says, it would be subject to “constant disruption.”

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