Major Asian stockpiles ease border restrictions

HONG KONG – After two and a half years Strict pandemic controlsome of Asia’s last institutions are finally opening their borders, as they move to strengthen their economies and catch up with a world that has learned to live with Covid.

Hong Kong said on Friday that it would lift the mandatory hotel quarantine for people arriving in the city starting next week, following a similar move by Taiwan. Japan said it would reduce its daily visitor limit and fully open to tourists on October 11.

The continued moves this week have subject only one major country to strict border controls: China, where the ruling Communist Party still clings to.0 Covidpolicy. People traveling to China, mainly residents, still face 10 days of hotel quarantine at their own expense.

As the pandemic swept the world in early 2020, many governments in Asia were quick to close their borders, with most places locking down anyone who was not a resident. The reopening has been a difficult and slow process, as officials are concerned about the vulnerability of their older populations and fear their health systems will be affected.

But isolation has become difficult to do, especially as much of the rest of the world has fully reopened. Cut back on big-spending tourists and in the face of economic hardships, business leaders have increasingly pressured officials in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan to rethink policies. their.

Last week, the Director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speak that the end of the pandemic is “in sight”, underscoring the shared willingness of many governments to begin to envision a world outside of Covid-19.

“I am aware of the fact that, while we need to control the spread of Covid, we also need to ensure that there is a maximum of social activity and economic activity for society to continue to thrive. ,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s top leader, this week before easing rules on Friday.

It is the clearest admission that the strict rules, closely tied to mainland China’s pandemic policy, have come at a price that officials are no longer willing to accept.

Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, acknowledged the importance of international tourists to the country’s survival.

“People all over the world have been asking, ‘When can we travel to Japan? ,” Mr. Kishida said on Wednesday, before the new regulations were announced, according to public broadcaster NHK. “Now, I hope they will plan to visit Japan and enjoy Japanese food.”

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

Tsai wrote on her Facebook page: “Finally, the end of the pandemic has come. “Now, we must make every effort to revive tourism, stimulate the economy, and make Taiwan’s economy grow by leaps and bounds.”

Over the past two years, Japan and Hong Kong have missed out on hosting important global gatherings, the kind of hubs for their identity as important regional hubs.

The Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for August 2020, were held a year later, but only for domestic audiences. Big, vibrant events in Hong Kong such as Art Basel, Rugby Sevens and regional financial conferences have been canceled as the city remains closed to non-residents and tourists.

Hong Kong had one of the strictest quarantine requirements at one time, with a mandatory 21-day hotel quarantine for arrivals. On Friday, officials announced a new policy that will go into effect next week, which only requires travelers to take a PCR test within a few days and monitor their health.

With borders restricted, travel is slow to return in much of the region. Willie Walsh, general manager of the International Air Transport Association, said that in April once a leading aviation hub, Hong Kong was “effectively off the map”.

While Hong Kong’s easing of Covid restrictions goes further than any other point in the pandemic, the new regulations will still prevent visitors from going to restaurants and bars during their health monitoring period. raises the question of whether it will be enough to attract tourists. on short visits.

In 2019, Japan earned about $46.1 billion from outbound tourism, according to the Japan Foreign Trade Organization. Almost all of that disappeared after the pandemic started.

In the wake of its latest move, Japan has been trying to fit in and start developing its tourism industry without much luck. In June, the government changed border rules, allowing travelers who agreed to take guided tours booked through travel agencies. In September, it changed the rules again, but kept visitors tightly bound.

Things got off to a slow start: Only 12,405 tourists arrived in the country in June, according to the most recent government data.

Japan’s reopening could release a huge amount of pent-up tourism demand, providing a much-needed boost to the country’s tourism and hospitality sectors. Nearly 32 million international tourists visited Japan in 2019, three times more than six years ago, according to government data.

But domestic travel is unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. Chinese tourists, who accounted for about 30% of traffic to Japan in 2019, are severely restricted in their ability to travel under Beijing’s strict Covid-19 policies.

Domestically, Japan plans to encourage tourism by offering government-subsidized discounts to Japanese people for hotels, restaurants and certain types of entertainment, Mr. Kishida said. It is a revival of a scheme, called “Travel”, that his predecessor introduced in an attempt to boost domestic tourism after it was wiped out in the early months of the pandemic. .

Asian governments all need economic help.

Japan’s economy has slowly begun to recover, with shoppers flooding into shopping malls and families dining out. But yen plungeswhich is swinging at its weakest level in nearly a quarter of a century, has hurt domestic consumers.

In Hong Kong, thousands of small businesses have close their doors, could not recover from some social distancing measures that forced restaurants and bars to close for weeks or months. The tough measures, coupled with the suppression of the former British colony’s legacy of free speech, have led young Hong Kongers, expats and multinationals to leave the city permanently.

While Taiwan’s economy remains relatively healthy due to its semiconductor industry, tourism has suffered. Taiwan limited the number of visitors coming during the pandemic, and for a time, non-residents were unable to go there.

April Lin, 36, a Taiwan tour guide in Taichung city, said: “The dark days of waiting to travel abroad are finally over. “It’s been a much-needed raindrop for many in the travel industry.”

Alexandra Stevenson reported from Hong Kong, and Ben Dooley from Tokyo. Hisako Ueno contribution reports from Tokyo, and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei, Taiwan.

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