Hong Kong – Two and a half years after Strict epidemic controlssome of Asia’s last strongholds are finally opening their borders, as they move to boost their economies and play catch-up to a world that has largely learned to live with Covid.
Hong Kong said on Friday it would scrap the mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming into the city starting next week, following a similar move by Taiwan. Japan said it will scrap the daily limit on the number of arrivals and open its doors fully to tourists on October 11.
This week’s series of moves has left just one country under tight border controls: China, where the ruling Communist Party still clings tozero covidPolicies. Those who travel to China, the majority of whom are residents, still face 10 days of quarantine at their own expense.
When the pandemic spread across the world in early 2020, many governments in Asia rushed to close their borders, with most places shutting down to any non-resident. Reopening has been an arduous and slow process, with officials concerned about the vulnerability of their older residents and fearing their health systems would collapse.
But isolation is becoming more and more difficult to bear, especially since most of the world has completely reopened. Isolated from big-spending tourists and facing economic headwinds, business leaders have put increasing pressure on officials in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan to rethink their policies.
Last week, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, He said That the end of the pandemic was “on the horizon”, underscoring the collective willingness of many governments to begin envisioning a world beyond Covid-19.
“I am aware of the fact that while we need to control the spread of Covid, we also need to make sure that there will be maximum activities in the community and economic activities for the community to carry on,” John Lee, Hong Kong’s top commander, said this week ahead of the relaxation of rules on Friday.
It was the strongest admission yet that the strict rules, closely linked to China’s epidemic policy, came at a cost that officials were no longer willing to bear.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has 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 Wednesday, before the new rules were announced, according to NHK public radio. “Now, I hope they plan to visit Japan and taste Japanese cuisine.”
In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen said people are willing to reconnect with the rest of the world.
“It has finally come to the end of the epidemic,” Ms Tsai wrote on her Facebook page. “Now, we must do our best to revive tourism, stimulate the economy, and lead the Taiwanese economy to develop by leaps and bounds.”
Over the past two years, Japan and Hong Kong have missed out on hosting important global gatherings, of the kind that are central to their identity as important hubs in the region.
The Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for August 2020, were held a year later, but only for domestic viewers. Hong Kong’s big and fun events like Art Basel, Rugby Sevens and regional financial conferences have been canceled as the city remains closed to non-residents and tourists.
Hong Kong has had one of the strictest quarantine requirements at some point, with 21 days of mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals. On Friday, officials announced a new policy that will go into effect next week, which will only require visitors to do several days of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and health monitoring.
With borders restricted, tourism has been slow to return in most parts of the region. Hong Kong was once a major aviation hub, “virtually off the map now,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said last April.
While Hong Kong’s easing of Covid restrictions goes further than any other point in the pandemic, the new rules will still prevent visitors from going to restaurants and bars during the health monitoring period, raising questions about whether that will be enough to lure tourists into short visits.
In 2019, Japan received about $46.1 billion from outbound tourism, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. Almost all of that disappeared after the pandemic started.
Before its latest move, Japan tried on and off and started to revive tourism, without much luck. In June, the government changed border rules, allowing tourists who agreed to participate in guided tours booked through travel agencies. In September, it changed the rules again, but kept visitors on strict restrictions.
Things got off to a slow start: Only 12,405 tourists entered the country in June, according to the latest government data.
The reopening of Japan could unleash a flood of pent-up travel demand, providing a much-needed boost to the country’s travel and hospitality sectors. Nearly 32 million international tourists visited Japan in 2019, three times the number six years ago, according to government data.
But inbound tourism is unlikely to approach pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. Chinese visitors, who made up about 30 percent of inbound 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 residents in hotels, restaurants and some types of entertainment, Mr. Kishida said. It is a revival of the plan, known as “go to travel”, put forward by his predecessor in an effort to increase domestic tourism after it was wiped out in the early months of the pandemic.
All Asian governments need economic assistance.
The Japanese economy is slowly starting to recover, with shoppers filling malls and families eating out. But drop in yenwhich is hovering around its weakest in nearly a quarter of a century, has been a pain for domestic consumers.
In Hong Kong, thousands of small businesses own They closed their doorsUnable to recover from several rounds of social distancing measures that forced restaurants and bars to stay closed for weeks or months. The crackdown, along with a crackdown on the former British colony’s legacy of free speech, has prompted Hong Kong’s youth, expats and multinationals to leave the city permanently.
While the Taiwanese economy has remained relatively healthy due to the semiconductor industry, tourism has suffered. Taiwan limited arrivals during the pandemic, and for a while, non-residents weren’t able to go there at all.
“The days of waiting to travel abroad are finally over,” said April Lin, 36, a Taiwanese tour guide in downtown Taichung. “It’s a much-needed rain for many in the tourism industry.”
Alexandra Stephenson Reported from Hong Kong, and Ben Dooley from Tokyo. Hisako Ueno Contributed to reporting from Tokyo, and Amy Chang Shen From Taipei, Taiwan.
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