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Singapore for Japan; HK in talks with Thailand; Danang back; Myanmar locks down

What travellers need to know about entry restrictions into Asian destinations and airline travel in Covid times. Japan and Laos ink safe bubble pact; Singapore eases travel for Brunei, NZ; SIA eyes New York; Vietnam reopens Danang; Hong Kong bans Air-India as doubts remain on Covid tests; Bali may not see foreign arrivals till 2021; and Boracay shoots for October.

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by Vijay Verghese

Updated 23 September,  2020


SEE ALSO Asia medical tourism | Travel health risks in Asia | Taipei guide | Bangkok hotels | Bangkok shopping | Hong Kong hotels | Airbus vs Boeing | Travel pricing in Covid times | Covid-19 travel updates | Covid-19 leader forum

Hyatt Regency Bali staff display homemade batik Covid face masks

While Bali beachside Covid purification rituals continue, the Hyatt Regency Bali leaped into the fray with homemade batik masks that were donated to villagers and staff / photo: Hyatt Regency Bali

AS AIRLINES restart skeletal services and destinations cautiously open their doors the big question for the Autumn rollout and beyond is, will passengers bite and will travellers get four green lights in a row? Countries have started stirring, some are easing restrictions and, to help streamline travel, a new Russian single-entry e-visa will be in effect from 1 January 2021. As Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Cambodia continue to keep their doors open for business, Japan and Laos signed a safe travel corridor agreement for visitors September 2020 on contingent on a 14-day home quarantine and full Covid tests.

In general, for traffic of any significance to pick up between any two points there will be four hurdles to clear – health clearances from both sides as well as government and immigration approvals, a big ask when so many countries still insist on a 14-day quarantine for foreign arrivals and returning nationals (a policy over which British Airways, Ryanair and easyjet have initiated legal action against the UK government).

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Quarantine protocols could make it a month-long odyssey for a weekend jaunt and not quite the picture postcard dash to a tropical idyll. Bear in mind both immigration and health requirements continue to fluctuate based on Covid-19 flattening, fresh waves and mini-outbreaks and will not be a given for extended periods until workable vaccines arrive. Fresh surges, now under control, in Hong Kong, Seoul, Bali and Vietnam late July and mid-August underscore the uncertainty as cases rose again in Japan, China and Australia. Check the WHO Covid dashboard.

Apex travel groups like the Airports Council International (ACI) have meanwhile urged the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to put together coherrent recommendations for governments to universally 1)Adopt proportionate measures based on scientific evidence; 2) Avoid blanket quarantines; 3) Introduce better testing protocols pre and post travel; and 4) To define and recognise authentic health certificates. Says ACI Director, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, “A risk-based approach would support the concept of travel bubbles, with low risk countries requiring no testing or quarantine for travel.” By mid August the ICAO had in place an Airport Health Accreditation programme, expected to give a fillip to aviation by setting up universal protocols.

Meanwhile, headquartered in Hannover, Germany, TUI (the largest travel group in the world) with over 1,600 travel agents, 400 hotels, and five airlines believes its current cash costs can be covered by the fourth quarter of 2020. The group reports 1.7 million new bookings since the resumption of travel. It also pioneered the first German test holiday group to Majorca mid June.

Travellers within Asia will need to look out as well for other seasonal ailments that have been elbowed off TV screens but remain a constant threat – dengue and mosquito-borne illnesses, assorted pneumonias, air pollution, and water-borne food-related bugs like cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis to name a few. See our Asian health risks report.

Further uncertainty is added by two key medical factors: Covid-19 tests are only good for the day they are administered; and the presumption that most carriers are asymptomatic. This has to be worrying for airlines, who take on a huge amount of risk managing 200-300 people on a flight in safe conditions, as well as for host countries and hotels that feel they have a grip on the coronavirus pandemic. No amount of safety protocols and Covid-free certificates and usurious health insurance premiums are going to help if a traveller comes down with symptoms.

AIRLINES have been hard hit and are keen to get back in the air as fast as possible. Late May THAI Airways International was before a Central Bankruptcy Court petitioning for a sweeping business reorganisation (it may not resume international services till December 2020) and NokScoot, which had failed to turn in an annual profit since its 2014 launch, was headed for closure. Its board announced end June it was moving to liquidate the airline, the first Thai Covid-19 casualty. Bangkok Airways meanwhile added two additional flights to Phuket 1 July from Samui and Bangkok. The carrier is already servicing Chiang Mai and Samui. And by August Thai AirAsia and Agoda (the online travel agency) were working together on joint packages for domestic Thai tourism, seen as the recovery vehicle. Thai Vietjet too launched a Bangkok-Khon Khaen service 30 July.

Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon combined carried just over 18,473 passengers in May (a drop of 99.4% compared to May 2019). The airline has secured a massive HK$39bn in recapitalisation financing to help it scrape along for a few more months. In July the airline expects to be operating at just over 9% of capacity. But nothing will ring the till more sweetly than a flood of passenger dollars, and therein lies the rub.

This is one reason why empty middle seats may not materialise in July even on the world’s safest airline, Qantas, whose CEO Alan Joyce has argued strongly for a ‘social distancing exemption.’ He maintains 60cm of seat space has negligible impact on safety. Cabin air filtration systems and masks are deemed sufficiently effective. “Social distancing rules are supposed to be 1.5 metres. If you did that, you’d have very few people on an aircraft and the airfares would have to be very high,” says Joyce. Qantas has removed most of its international seat inventory till end March 2021. Farther out in the Pacific, Jetstar New Zealand had 90% of its domestic capacity in operation by August.

Seoul deals with a new Covid-19 spike in cases August 2020

Seoul stations being disinfected in February 2020. The PPE-clad brigade is back dealing with an August Covid spike in Seoul following rule-breaking church congregations and protests.  

Air France started rolling out flights in June with an expectation of hitting 40% of seat capacity sometime in August then going up to a massive 150 destinations (including domestic points) serving cities like New York, San Francisco, Sao Paolo, Rio, Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo and Osaka. This is already a very cheery projection. Lufthansa had 40% of its fleet in operation by July.

Singapore Airlines  has its sights on a New York service in its winter schedules from November 2020. By September SIA was already flying limited services to Tokyo, Seoul, Auckland, Paris and a daily flight to London Heathrow.

By August 2020, Emirates had resumed flights to over 70 destinations linking UK and Europe (as well as Chicago and Toronto - with A380s in operation from 16 August - in North America) to Australia via Dubai. On 1 September Emirates restarted daily services to Bangkok. The airline offers 'global Covid-19 cover' to its passengers as well as the flexibility to reschedule interrupted trips within the next 24 months. The A380 is in operation to Guangzhou as well. The airline has adopted a minimal contact policy onboard with no in-flight magazines and only check-in baggage (with the exception of laptops, handbags and baby paraphernalia). There are temperature checks and gloves and masks are mandatory for passengers.

Emirates President Tim Clark holds a sanguine view on the flight path ahead and will institute no fleet cuts (unlike several airlines) with all A380 behemoths being retained. The airline expects to have its entire fleet back up in the air by summer 2022. Clark’s implied gamble on the emergence of vaccines followed by a resurgence in travel, may well be right.

Mid-August Hong Kong banned Air-India 'vande mataram' repatriation flights for two weeks following 11 imported cases that came off a 14 August flight from India. The Air-India ban was extended mid-September again as some passengers were still presenting positive results for Covid. The Hong Kong Government expressed doubts about the efficacy of Covid screening and tests at Indian airports and requested stringent protocols.

Amidst the Covid pandemic with larger carriers cutting back sharply on services, on 14 July 2020 the new budget carrier Air Arabia from Abu Dhabi (www.airarabia.comi) launched its maiden service to Alexandria, Egypt. Meanwhile, from 1 August, passengers on Etihad Airways head to or transiting Abu Dhabimust produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test result from any of a list of approved testing facilities as well as ' ICA approval' for a terminator stop in Abu Dhabi. Tests must be concluded within 96 hours prior to arrival. Kids under 12 and those with mild to severe disabilities are "currently exempt from this PCR test requirement."

Asian biggie Singapore Airlines wants to serve 27 destinations by end July (from 10 June the airline had three weekly flights to Hong Kong) while Cathay Pacific has opted for a ‘skeleton’ service through summer, touching points like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, Sydney, Melbourne, London, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. Vietnam Airlines has meanwhile dropped its Sydney services till at least end March 2021.

In the Philippines, budget carrier Cebu Pacific had by mid-August started limited services from Manila to Seoul, Singapore and Dubai. Mega budget carrier AirAsia is hit hard by the travel downturn with revenues for the second quarter of 2020 down 98% on the previous year.

Surprisingly, airfares have not shot up as expected. In mid June, Cathay Pacific was charging HK$3,120 for a Hong Kong-Singapore economy roundtrip for its single flight operating once or twice a week and Korean Air was offering fares of HK$4,074 via Seoul to Sapporo.

Virgin Atlantic schedules had London-Hong Kong and transpacific flights to New York, LA, and San Francisco from 20 July 2020 with further destinations opening up in August. Qatar Airways mid-June was touching points like Dhaka, Istanbul, Islamabad, Jakarta, Lahore, Rome, Sydney and Singapore with strong coverage of the US market. United Airlines meanwhile cranks up twice-weekly flights San Francisco to Shanghai from 8 July.

CRUISES Princess Cruises meanwhile has opened bookings for its 2022 World Cruise that runs 111 days starting from Fort Lauderdale 5 January. Or passengers can catch it at Los Angeles (19 January 2022). Early bookings by 30 November 2020 will earn US$1,000 in credit per stateroom confirmed. Also find cruises from Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney. Princess has meanwhile held back all cruises touching Australia until at least 31 October, and sailings for the South Pacific, Japan and the rest of Asia till 15 December. Pandaw Cruises, which specialises in river runs, has put back India sailings for its 2021-2022 calendar and Asia cruises may not return until November depending on government regulations. By August 2020 Crystal Cruises had launched its 'Crystal Confidence 2.0' offering maximum flexibility on bookings with a 90-day grace period for placement of any deposit. This is for all types of cruises - rivers, yachts and expeditions - for 2020 to 2023. There are flexible cancellation terms as well.

DESTINATIONS are switching on green lights at varying speeds. With the focus on a safe reopening, the European Union has put up a useful site to help travellers plan any EU travel with updated requirements from member countries. Europe's reopening is being watched with interest and may provide clues for later entrants. While the EU opened its borders to 14 countries 1 July (including Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) it still has a ban on travellers from the US (as well as Russia, Brazil and various high risk countries). Europeans were blocked from travel to the USA in early March. The UK is still deemed part of thre EU.

Asia and Asean have yet to configure a travel start-up plan or a useful dashboard with timelines, and airlines remain a prime source of up to date information. As a general statistical overview, the cleanly presented Global Covid-19 Index (GCI) by a Malaysian company offers data-driven at-a-glance insights into recovery, restrictions and lockdowns while the World Health Organisation has its worldwide Covid-19 dashboard. By late September with the inclusion of the Philippines, 100 countries had been granted a 'Safe Travels' stamp by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

With destination Covid-19 travel restrictions in flux, here are some broad strokes for Asia.

AUSTRALIA – while discussing a safe travel corridor with New Zealand – remains closed to foreign arrivals and transit traffic. It is likely that a 14-day quarantine requirement for inbound (or returning) passengers may be extended until December 2020 and overseas holidays for Australians may be pushed back to 2021. Early August the state of Victoria was experiencing a new surge in Covid-19 cases.

Sri Lanka reopens in Covid times - train chugs through the hill country and tea estates

Sri Lanka is one of the first countries to reopen in Covid times - a train chugs through the cool verdant hills where nestle some of the country's more spectacular tea estates and retreats.   

CAMBODIA is a hard nut to crack and visitors are required to stump up a US$3,000 deposit right off the bat. This is to cover any unforeseen costs that may arise for medical costs or quarantines. In addition to this rather dramatic hurdle entry requires a valid US$50,000 medical insurance along with a negative Covid-19 test result obtained within 72 hours of travel.

But wait, there’s more. After this travellers need to fork out US$100 for a Covid test and then spend a night at the test centre at US$30 per night with an additional $30 for meals and a US$5 charge for the bus transfer (each time). Sundry fees for laundry, ‘medical surveillance’ and security all add up. Passengers testing positive will bring about the quarantine of all their fellow passengers on the flight and then undergo another set of levies for hospital stay and meals and tests that could total US$1,000 or more. All this comes out of that initial deposit.

CHINA has stopped entry for foreigners with visas that were issued before 28 March, 2020. The same holds true for those using an APEC business travel card. The Beijing Xinfadi wholesale food market outbreak mid June proved a damper but was brought under control. Diplomats and those undertaking essential trade or scientific work are largely exempt from travel restrictions. Any eligible visitors or transit passengers must have WeChat installed on their mobile phones and they should have input all relevant health details prior to arrival. In August cases were being detected and treated in Xinjiang in the far northwest and Liaoning district in the northeast where Dalian was proceeding on a war footing. Domestic air travel in China is forecast to reach normal levels late September.

HONG KONG only permits returning residents of the territory to enter (subject to a 14-day home quarantine) and testing at the airport. Non-resident visitors are not eligible at this point with a few exceptions. Travel bubbles to at least six destinations - France, Germany, Switzerland, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam - were under consideration early September. Some border flows for business travel and re-uniting families was expected by October with Macau and Mainland China perhaps the first to open their doors. An HK-Thailand travel bubble is being explored as well. Hong Kong's early August Covid spike was under control by month end with restrictions relaxed.

INDIA cautiously restarted some domestic flights late June and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced late August that domestic travel could reach normal levels by 14 November, the Indian festival of Diwali. By late September the government had announced its 'Unlock4' guidelines to open up unfettered domestic travel and restrict Covid-19 tests for local travellers as well as state quarantine restrictions - this, despite India overtaking USA as a pandemic case leader globally. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) flirted with international flights from midnight on 15 July and has opened up slowly with repatriation services. There is pressure on the country to reopen charter and/or scheduled flights from USA and Europe within 'safe corridors'. Air India and Air France signed up for limited services between Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to Paris and United was taking on Delhi-San Francisco and Delhi-Newark. The tickets are to be sold one-way only. August 2020 Germany was also being brought into the safe corridor plan.

INDONESIA & BALI by late August had still blocked all foreign leisure arrivals and visas had been suspended. Bali’s governor, in an abundance of caution, has pushed back domestic tourism too given the outbreaks in Java (and Jakarta and Surabaya in particular). Bali may only reopen to foreign tourists in 2021. Domestic travellers also face a huge amount of health checks and procedures, discouraging intra-island jaunts. Any eligible international arrival would have to undergo self-quarantine for two weeks. There will be a Covid-19 test upon arrival. There is also a long list of countries that should not have been visited over the previous 14 days. Discussions have focused on Bali's reopening for international flights possibly in October or as early as mid-September but this may be delayed as a small spike in Covid-19 cases in Denpasar late July brought things back to square one.

JAPAN remains closed till 18 September but transit traffic is allowed. There is a lengthy list of 111 countries from Australia and Brazil to Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, India and South Africa that should not have featured on passenger travel itineraries within 14 days of arrival/transit. All current visas are cancelled. There is talk too of setting quotas for foreign visitors. Early August Japan was witnessing fresh coronavirus cases. Japan and Laos have established a safe travel corridor linking the two countries and travellers will be able to visit with a 14-day stay-at-home restriction and Covid tests. Short-term business travellers from Singapore may soon be exempt from a 14-day self-quarantine after arrival in Japan but must limit their travel to residence and office with no use of public transportation and other random contact. On 21 September Vietnam Airlines resumed flights to Japan for workers and students but not leisure trippers.

Wedding couple, Hoi An - Vietnam closes Danang and evacuates 80,000 tourists late July 2020

Wedding couple in red tunics pause for a photo on a bridge crossing the river at scenic old silk town Hoi An that is a hugely popular twin-stop for Danang-bound visitors / photo: Vijay Verghese

MACAU is closed to international traffic with a few exceptions. Inbound travel is permissible for Mainland Chinese travellers with Macau SAR visit permits and residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

MALAYSIA was initially closed to international visitors till 31 August, 2020.  Late August the closure was extended (for international leisure travellers) until 31 December 2020. Some travel between Singapore and Malaysia (largely for work permit holders) has commenced. By mid-September AirAsia was offering domestic fares as low as RM39 to spark a recovery in travel.

MALDIVES opened the door to foreign travellers 15 July after having earlier stopped issuance of visas on arrival from 27 March with inbound cruises and local excursions (for residual guests) barred. By September all tourists could receive a 30-day visa but would have to possess a negative PCR test certificate issued within 72 hoursbefore arrival. The archipelago ‘with naturally self-isolated islands’ had thus far presented its charms through virtual events showcasing the destination’s charms using the tagline, ‘The sun will shine again.’ This slogan may be apt for the returning tourists who do not need to undergo any quarantine or produce test results. They are, however, screened at the airport with temperatures recorded. Procedures to watch. Despite all these steps by mid August the Maldives had witnessed a small spike in Covid cases(six guests and 10 staff) post opening at nine luxury island resorts. There was no reported community spread beyond the Male atolls. Male the capital and its immediate environs were under nighttime curfew 10pm to 5am.

MYANMAR had resumed some domestic flights and was exploring international links but a Covid spike mid-September scuppered both. Domestic flights are on hold as are international flights that may resume sometime in October.


The white-sand resort island of Boracay hopes to reopen in October with a safe travel corridor linking it to South Korea (pending the outcome of Seoul's latest outbreak linked to church groups and protests). By August, Philippine Airlines had cranked up more than a smattering of international flights (with the caveat that some flights may return via Cebu as NAIA airport in Manila lacks sufficient testing facilities for large numbers). In this eventuality, passengers with negative test results will be transferred from Cebu to Manila by PAL. The restarted PAL flights from Manila touch points like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Sydney, Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Doha, Xiamen and Ho Chi Minh City. From 1 August 2020 foreigners with long-term visas could return to the Philippines. Arriving passenger may pay P4,500 for private Covid tests and this will shorten the stay in designated hotels to one or two days. On 1 August 2020, international flights resumed from Clark International Airport. Airlines using Clark include AirAsia, Emirates, Jeju Air, Jetstar, Qatar, PAL and Cebu Pacific.


By 1 June, the Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles were open to arrivals from 19 countries including Thailand, Japan, China and New Zealand. Private charter flightss were open from approved countries and commercial flights were being considered. Passengers will need to have obtained a negative Covid test prior to boarding.

SINGAPORE is closed to foreigner visitors though Brunei and New Zealand were unilaterally brought into the safe category by September with international visitors allowed to skip the 14-day stay-at-home order if cleared of Covid on arrival. The Air Travel Pass (ATP) programme runs from 8 September. A partial easing of the lockdown on the island was instituted 18 June.  From 17 June all eligible travellers (though not short-term visitors) from a small list of countries (Australia, Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, China, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam) who have not travelled out of these countries for two weeks prior to boarding “will no longer have to serve their SHN [stay-at-home notice] at dedicated SHN facilities.” This remains in flux however. Singapore citizens and long-term pass holders can serve out the 14-day period at their homes. All others will be placed at dedicated SHN centres. All travellers need to undergo a Covid-19 test a few days before their quarantine ends. Facility stay (S$2,000) and test costs (up to S$200) are now passed on to the travellers.

It is likely Singaporeans may be unable to travel abroad freely until 2021. Limited travel between Singapore and Malaysia (mainly to ease restrictions on work permit holders) has commenced. Additionally, short-term business travellers from Singapore to Japan could soon be exempt from a 14-day self-quarantine but will need to limit their travel to just between residence and office with no use of public transportation or other random contact. Meanwhile Japanese visitors to Singapore with the necessary clearance will likely need to wear an electronic tag for 14 days.

SOUTH KOREA reported a fresh outbreak with almost 300 cases in Seoul (largely linked to a right wing church group) Sunday 16 August as the government tries to move against religious groups that still congregate or are pushing for large in-person anti-government rallies. The country requires any eligible travellers to carry mobile phones, whose numbers will be verified at immigration. All passengers must undertake a two-week quarantine and those without a domestic residence will be quarantined at a government facility at a fee of W1,400,000. End August Korean Air was operating limited transit flights touching American destinations, UK/Europe and Russia. Do note that all visas issued before 5 April have been cancelled.

SRI LANKA welcomes international visitors from 1 August, 2020, and the journey promises to be fairly trouble-free if less than serendipitous. Arrivals will need a Covid-free certificate issued within 72 hours of the boarding time and there will be a coronavirus test administered at Colombo airport too. This will be followed up by one more check within five days. Travellers need to commit to a minimum of five days in Sri Lanka booking only designated hotels. They cannot use public transport. For the intrepid wishing to stay over 10 days there will be yet another Covid-19 test for them during the course of their holiday. The visa fee has gone up to US$100. The country has been granted a 'Safe Travels' stamp for closely conforming to international norms, by the World Travel & Tourism Council.

TAIWAN remains closed to foreign visitors.

THAILAND suspended all international flights until 30 June. The flight ban is expected to continue till later in the year and THAI may not resume international services until December 2020. Until late March, before the airports closed, foreign arrivals from ‘affected zones’ had to present a comprehensive insurance policy with at least US$100,000 of medical coverage (by September 2020 a consortium of 16 insurance companies had come together to offer foreign arrivals this insurance cover). A health declaration form had to be filled as well on a mobile phone through a designated app. Thailand is considering safe corridors for limited arrivals from safe destinations that have been Covid-free for 60 days. This could include areas on Japan, South Korea and China. While some limited arrivals have been permitted, it has been indicated that regular international flights may have to wait till late September. Meanwhile the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) has rolled out an innovative 'Ease up' deal with partner hotels offering free airport transfers, sightseeing and complimentary rooms for event managers. In mid August the TCEB had signed up 54 hotels and eight Destination Management Companies.

Hoteliers would welcome government funds as the country explores ‘bubble tours’ with visitors to, say, Phuket transferred privately and securely for a 14-day quarantine after which they’d be free to move around on a 30-day holiday with regular health checks and surveillance. The official term is safe and sealed travel.

TURKEY has open borders from 1 July (though the country was seeing a rise in cases late June) bundled with a "Safe Tourism" programme that includes a 15-Euros insurance (offering 3,000 Euros of medical coverage) upon arrival.

UAE opens its doors 7 July with vigorous protocols in place for Dubai airport and points of entry. Permissible travellers include foreign visitors (business and leisure) as well as residents and citizens of the UAE. Passengers will need Covid-19 certificates and may face testing upon arrival. International health insurance is "mandatory". By mid-July Abu Dhabi had domestic tourism stirring again as it prepared for international visitors.

VIETNAM (which has managed the outbreak fairly well) expected to have international flights back by 31 July linking safe travel corridors as perhaps to Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan. This has had a setback with a small community Covid cluster in Danang late July that resulted in the evacuation and repatriation of 80,000 tourists from Danang. Danang was placed under a 15-day lockdown on 28 July. International flights were curtailed and the government is considering a delayed restart for destinations deemed safe. On 8 September VietJet resumed domestic flights to Danang. And on 22 September VietJet launched its Deluxe Class in-flight along with upgrades to its SkyBoss programme.

The countries of origin for travellers would need to have been Covid-free for 30 days. This sort of link up may eliminate quarantines when travel returns. The island of Phu Quoc in the far south of the country was earlier identified as one of the first areas to open for international arrivals. Protocols being discussed include swab tests at Phu Quoc Airport (this is an international facility) and results within 24 hours. If everyone on the flight has been cleared, travellers can continue with their holiday uninterrupted. A 14-day quarantine awaits anyone with symptoms. The visa-free status of the island is under discussion. By end August, visa services for Vietnam were still unavailable.


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