Asian neighbors wary of COVID-19 but eager for cash as China reopens

SEOUL – With China’s vast population finally freed to travel as Beijing lifts its prohibitive “zero-COVID” quarantine requirements on Sunday, cautious nations across East Asia are strategizing about how to handle a sudden influx of pent-up Chinese tourism demand.

Due to the COVID-19 surge in China as the communist regime abandons its strict shutdown policy, while providing only bleak numbers of new cases, it is a dilemma that has produced a clear schism in regional capitals over whether and how to welcome the lucrative Chinese travelers and their much needed yuan.

On the periphery of China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all run by pro-American governments and wary of what Chinese tourists might bring with them, impose specific measures on travelers from the mainland.

On the other hand, the Southeast Asian nations Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are holding fire and refusing to apply special measures against Chinese visitors.

The democracies of Northeast Asia, all manufacturing powerhouses, rely less on tourism than their sunny Southeast Asian counterparts. But in recent years, Japan and South Korea have promoted inbound travel, while Vietnam, on the contrary, is a rising force in high-tech manufacturing.

After three years of virtually going it alone with the zero-COVID approach, the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping finally gave up last month in the face of growing public unrest and abandoning mass lockdowns and mass testing. Reports from the country suggest that the shift has released a viral tsunami across the country, with hospital ICUs and crematoriums running at capacity. Beijing, in response, has limited or canceled the release of updated figures on infections and death rates due to COVID.

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This lack of transparency has sparked rare criticism from UN World Health Organization (WHO) officials, who said they were “extremely concerned” about the lack of clarity about China’s face. Others agree, saying China is “behind the curve” compared to its regional neighbors, who moved more quickly toward a gradual reopening as Covid rates fell.

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“The world has been through so much with COVID, so many lessons have been learned,” Jerome Kim, the director general of the International Vaccine Institute, told The Washington Times. “A country that was so successful at ‘zero-COVID’ could have planned a successful release like Australia or South Korea.”

Mass export of COVID

For governments now, the situation increases the risk of a mass export of COVID infections from the most populous country in the world. Last week, Beijing announced it would lift quarantine restrictions on travelers on Sunday, and would also begin reissuing passports and visas. With reports from China that online travel bookings are on the rise, the floodgates may be opening.

Whatever the public health challenge it poses, no government can ignore the economy, and China is – by far – the richest source of outbound tourists on the planet.

In 2019, the year before COVID decimated travel, Chinese tourists spent $254.6 billion worldwide, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, or UNWTO.

The spending power of Chinese tourists is far above any other. The next biggest donors were Americans, with $152.3 billion, followed by Germans, with $92.2 billion.

But there is little time for the tourism and immigration systems to prepare for a Chinese influx, because while the short New Year’s weekend is over, China’s – and the region’s – biggest holiday is underway.

This year, the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday lasts for eight days starting on Saturday, January 21. During the last pre-COVID New Year holiday in 2019, about 415 million Chinese traveled domestically, while 6.3 million traveled overseas – figures that led some travel analysts have to call the holiday the largest annual migration in the world.

It represents a potential windfall for regional tourism sectors, which badly need business after a pandemic shutdown that has decimated business for two years.

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As COVID-19 spread outward from China in early 2020, global tourism shrank. Tourism revenues in 2020 were $935 billion less than the 2019 figure, pushing the sector back to levels not seen in three decades, the UNWTO estimates.

UN analysts found that Asia-Pacific was the hardest hit region, with an 82% drop in tourism. Europe and America, on the other hand, decreased by 68%.

Different ways

What should governments do? Approaches vary.

South Korean airports this week reportedly experienced significant delays as authorities began administering COVID tests to travelers arriving from China — a policy that was first announced in late December. Even after taking the test, all arrivals from China must self-isolate for two days before receiving a negative result. These procedures do not apply to other nations.

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo visited Incheon International to monitor the situation, where there were complaints from some travelers.

The South Korean response follows an earlier move by Japan. Last Friday, Tokyo mandated COVID tests for all arrivals from China — a policy it previously applied only to those who showed signs of being infected. Taiwan also announced that it would test all arrivals from China starting on the first day of 2023.

The economies of Southeast Asia, much more dependent on tourism as a percentage of GDP, are proving more flexible in welcoming Chinese tourists.

Health authorities in Hanoi, citing the large number of Vietnamese who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or infected and recovered, said last week it would not ban or test incoming Chinese.

Thailand expects to welcome about 5 million Chinese visitors this year, but Thai health authorities who met this week did not announce specific steps against visitors from China, a policy also followed by Indonesia.

In an unusual move, Malaysia said it would not test Chinese travelers, but it would monitor toilet water on planes arriving from Chinese airports for signs of COVID.

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The Philippines’ policy is unclear, but Manila has indicated the urgent need for special monitoring of visitors from China.

Moves by other nations – which further afield now include France, Italy, Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States – to apply special precautions regarding Chinese entrants have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.

The outspoken, state-controlled Global Times news website charged that these nations “see the opening of China as another opportunity to defame Beijing,” adding, “the US propaganda machine is also running like crazy to smear China.”

But even the Global Times admitted that Chinese caseloads “ballooned in the recent wave of outbreaks,” and quoted a local doctor as saying, “It’s hard to accurately understand the death rate when the infection spreads quickly.”

Mr. Kim of the International Vaccine Institute said there was still a risk of successive waves of infection as Chinese domestic and international travel over the Lunar New Year holiday week subsided. The effectiveness of China’s domestic COVID vaccines raises another concern: Although the data is inconclusive, Mr. Kim noted reports that found China’s two main vaccines, with 51% and 79% effectiveness, do not match Western mRNA Vaccines, with 90% efficiency. .

“The population is large enough, with high and low density areas, that there could be successive waves,” he said. “In the United States, it tends to start on the coasts, migrate in, then bounce back, and China is big enough to see that as well.”

A combination of widespread infections with low booster rates among elderly Chinese could trigger a major public health crisis. “The implications are the spread of a generation of new variants that we really don’t know about,” Mr Kim said.

For more information, visit The Washington Times’ COVID-19 resource page.


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