There was palpable relief in Australia and Thailand on Monday, after both countries eased international border curbs significantly for the first time in 18 months. The move could prove an early indicator of the demand for tourism and travel in Asia after the Covid pandemic.
Hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrived in Bangkok for quarantine-free travel after the Southeast Asian nation gave the green light for visitors from 63 countries, including China and the United States.
European nations were also on the list as Thailand, one of the world’s most popular destinations, looks to revive an economy that has taken a battering from restrictions endured during the pandemic – its worst economic performance since the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s.
Thailand last week also ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal, its commerce minister revealed on Monday. The move, on October 28, is another sign of a government anxious to get money circulating wider after an 18-month slowdown. More than half of last year’s exports were sent to trade partners within the region, Jurin Laksanawisit said in a statement.
Opening the door to foreign visitors again is a lifeline to the country’s hugely important tourism industry. More than 6,600 people arrived on Monday. And many who passed through the airport early in the day expressed relief at being about to get away from the northern winter.
Meanwhile in Sydney, hundreds of citizens were greeted by family and friends, as they became the first to arrive without a permit or the need to quarantine since April 2020.
“(It’s a) little bit scary and exciting,” said Ethan Carter, who flew in on a Qantas Airways flight from Los Angeles. “I’ve come home to see my mum ’cause she’s not well.”
While travel is limited at first to just a few states and to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families and New Zealand nationals, it heralds a plan to re-open to international tourists and workers, both much needed to reinvigorate a fatigued nation.
Australia’s announcement of quarantine-free travel for Singapore citizens from November 21 was a step forward to “a new normal”, said Philip Goh, the Asia-Pacific vice president of airline trade body IATA.
“We are excited by this positive development and we look forward to further easing of border restrictions by Australia and other countries in the region,” Goh said. “It will provide the needed boost for the recovery of the aviation industry and air travel sector.”
Huge Aviation Losses
Despite the eased curbs, travel in full swing is a long way off. IATA estimates losses of a towering $200 billion from the pandemic for the global aviation industry over the period from 2020 to 2022.
Losses in Asia alone were close to $50 billion in 2020, while in both August and September, international travel in Asia-Pacific stood at about 4% of 2019 levels.
In Thailand, about three million people lost jobs dependent on tourism, and revenue of an estimated $50 billion a year.
Thai officials tested the waters by re-opening the resort island of Phuket in July, letting fully-vaccinated tourists skip the then-mandatory two weeks in quarantine, provided they kept to the island, where tourism accounts for 90% of the economy.
However, the “Phuket Sandbox” was less popular than hoped, with arrivals in July at just 1% of pre-pandemic levels.
The finance ministry forecasts just 180,000 foreign arrivals this year and 7 million next year, down from about 40 million in 2019.
Thailand’s new programme requires visitors to spend their first night in a pre-approved hotel and get a negative Covid-19 test before they can travel elsewhere.
Some States Still Closed
Australia’s changes allow free travel by millions in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory. Other locations, however, are closed or restricted.
“We still have a long way to go in terms of the recovery of our sector,” said Geoff Cuthbert, the chief executive of Sydney Airport. “But allowing fully vaccinated Australians to travel without quarantine will provide the template for bringing back students, business travellers, and tourists from all over the world.”
Western Australia, one of the world’s biggest producers of iron ore, will stay largely closed to the rest of the country and the world, however, as the state tries to stay virus-free.
Thailand and Australia had adopted some of the world’s toughest curbs to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
While a Delta outbreak kept Sydney and Melbourne in lockdowns for months until recently, Australia’s infections are far lower than many countries, with just over 170,500 cases and 1,735 deaths.
Most of Thailand’s 1.9 million infections and more than 19,000 related deaths have come since April, with about 42% of its 72 million people fully vaccinated.
• Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard
This report was updated on November 2.