Asia tightens its borders with Omicron clouds The region returns to travel | Corona virus pandemic
Hwaseong, South Korea – Asia Pacific countries are tightening borders and delaying reopening plans in response to the Omicron coronavirus variant, dealing a blow to the region’s already slow resumption of international travel.
Japan announced on Monday that the country will ban foreign arrivals from Tuesday, just weeks after easing restrictions on visa holders including short-term business travelers and international students.
The move comes after the Philippines on Sunday banned arrivals from seven European countries – including the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy – and Singapore postponed the opening of quarantine-free “travel corridors” with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia scheduled for next week.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday he would review plans to allow migrants and international students into the country from Wednesday, plunging the country into uncertainty over the country’s exit from one of its longest periods of international isolation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday asked officials to review the planned easing of restrictions on arrivals from “at-risk” countries, local media reported, just two weeks after the country reopened to tourists from 99 countries.
The announcements come on top of a ban that dozens of countries have already imposed on arrivals from South Africa, where the new alternative was first discovered.
Gary Bowerman, director of Kuala Lumpur-based Check In Asia Travel and Tourism Research, told Al Jazeera that he expects the emergence of the Omicron variant to halt momentum toward reopening and lead some countries to reverse steps they have taken so far.
“The problem with the travel industry is that the fear factor, whether or not science proves justified, is back almost overnight,” Bowerman said. This coincides with two of the traditional travel periods in the region, namely Christmas/New Year and Lunar New Year. Hopes to boost regional travel are starting to grow, but this will weaken, if not eliminate both.”
The Asia-Pacific region, where many countries have kept coronavirus cases and deaths low with strict border controls, has lagged behind Europe and North America in resuming international travel, even as vaccines approach maximum coverage.
As of September, arrivals to most of Asia were down 99 percent over pre-pandemic levels, compared to a decline of just 20 percent in Mexico and about 65 percent for southern Europe, according to data compiled by Capital Economics.
Before the pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region received about 291 million tourists who added $875 billion to the economy, according to the 2019 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index from the World Economic Forum.
While China and Hong Kong have doubled down on a strict “zero COVID” policy mandating weeks of hotel quarantine for arrivals, other countries in the region have taken cautious steps to reopen their doors that have prioritized certain categories of arrivals or those coming from certain countries.
Singapore on Monday reopened its land border with Malaysia, one of the world’s busiest, amid fears the new alternative could derail the city-state’s ambitions to learn to live with the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) described Omicron as a “variant of concern”, but stressed that it was not yet known if it was more virulent or transmissible than other strains.
The World Health Organization said “initial evidence” indicates that the variant may infect people who have recovered from COVID-19 more easily than other strains. Angelique Coetzee, a South African doctor who was among the first to identify the variant, told the BBC on Sunday she had seen patients had “extremely mild” symptoms and believed the world was panicking prematurely.
Bowerman, director of Check-in Asia, said the political landscape across the region has changed over the past 20 months of border restrictions.
“People in their home countries have mostly been isolated for nearly two years,” he said. “Inevitably, reopening borders will be much more difficult than closing them, and even more so when the political narrative all along that time has been that closed borders have been a key mechanism to protect people from further spread of the virus.”
Gareth Leather, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, called the alternative “clearly bad news for regional tourism.”
“You just have to see what happened to the Thai baht,” Leather told Al Jazeera, referring to the Thai currency’s slide on Monday.
“I hope this is a false alarm but it makes sense to be careful.”