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COVID-19 AND THE TRAVEL RESTART

Phu Quoc opens Oct, Nha Trang soon; SIA plans Bali flights Nov; M'sia pushes domestic travel

Singapore's quarantine-free entry for HK, Macao, Brunai, China, NZ threatened by spikes; Vietnam considers beach entry points; Phuket's 'sandbox' model without quarantines extends to Koh Samui; Maldives reopened to Indian travellers; trans-Tasman bubble off; Indonesia curbs travel, Malaysia pushes interstate travel; China allows entry only for Sinovac jabs; Europe rejects Sinovac , Sputnik.

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by Vijay Verghese

Updated 24 September, 2021

 

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 | Airline Bailouts | Asia tsunami history | Bali volcano updates | Behind the scenes - Staycations

Phu Quoc cable car - the island opens to international travellers October 2021

The southern Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc is open to international travellers from October 2021. One of the longest cable car routes in Asia takes visitors across some scenic vistas. The island is being rapidly developed, too fast for some.


VIETNAM opens the southern island of Phu Quoc to vaccinated foreigners October 2021. Visitors will need to book through travel agencies and produce proof of completed vaccinations or recovery from Covid-19 within the past 12 months. Dive city Nha Trang opens to domestic travellers mid October and hopes to welcome international visitors by December 2021.

Singapore threw open quarantine-free entry (without reciprocity) 26 August 2021 for Hong Kong, Macao, China, New Zealand. A spike shortly after threatened this move but the city has stayed on course. The city state said it needed to open the economy to avoid lasting damage and Covid was here to stay as an endemic problem. Also back on track are vaccinated traveller lanes for Germans and citizens of Brunei. Again, no quarantine is required. Of course, travellers from these countries may face quarantines on their return.

With the innovative Phuket Sandbox scheme now expanded to a "7+7" model, holidays for the intrepid have opened up in southern Thailand with stays of a week each in a combination of perhaps Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi (with its fabled limestone karsts), or Phang Nga. Phuket launched its ambitious 'Sandbox' quarantine-free travel scheme 1 July 2021 (more in THAILAND section in the destination segment) targeting fully vaccinated international travellers from as far afield as Europe.

Koh Samui followed suit mid-July but all Thailand domestic flights were grounded through August, limiting tourist movement. Domestic Thailand flights restarted 7 September. And with an eye on pent up domestic demand Hong Kong rolled out high seas cruises on its holidays-at-home platform as "Staycations at Sea". Genting Dream was the first cruise out on 30 July 2021. Hong Kong banned all arrivals from the UK 1 July fearing ingress by the fast-spreading Indian Covid Delta variant strain. Japan continues to bar visitors from many countries it deems high risk and continues to serve up tough quarantine measures as the Olympics closed and athletes departed.

By June 2021 six countries in the Greater Mekong region were considering the return of foreign tourists but with a yet to be determined quarantine period. Plans are still being formulated. And in the Philippines, islands like Boracay and Panglao were stirring with domestic travel from 2 June 2021.

In Europe, travel was stirring again July as the EU toyed with its Digital Green Certificate, IATA with a Travel Pass, and others choosing their own route as in the Russian single-entry e-visa that was in effect from 1 January 2021 (some background in our earlier Covid-19 Passport comment). The Russian Sputnik V vaccination was declared invalid by Iceland in April 2021 (with those travellers barred from entry) and Europe said it would not recognise those with Chinese Sinovac vaccinations. China on the other hand has been demanding proof of a Sinovac jab for entry to the country. By June 2021 the WHO had weighed in recognising the Chinese Sinovac vaccine for emergency use.

Till late July the European Union had still not green-lighted the Indian-manufactured Covishield vaccine (Oxford-AstraZeneca) as an approved jab for entry, leaving travel plans up in the air for many. Some European countries were in independent talks with India.

A trans-Tasman travel bubble that had been in place since 6 April, 2021 with a phenomenal pick-up in flights was off late July as New Zealand isolated itself from Australian outbreaks. Community cases in Melbourne crimped bubble plans - and flights - and by late June, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns were sealing up. By mid-August however New Zealand had declared its borders closed till at least the end of 2021.

India had several lockdowns in place (including in the capital New Delhi) by mid April 2021 to combat a serious Covid-19 surge following large political rallies and religious gatherings like the 2m-strong Kumbh Mela. The lockdown in New Delhi was eased late June. A spike in the fast-spreader Delt6a variant and other mutations also resulted in Hong Kong on 20 April banning all flights for two weeks from India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Restrictions and flight bans continue for the most part.

Israel’s Green Pass for domestic travel (Israelis only) was up and running by March 2021 while Bali, which wanted a 1 July opening like Phuket for so-called 'green zones' in the tourist areas of Nusa Dua, Sanur and Ubud, has had to push back quarantine-free bubble plans.

China meanwhile announced late March that it would restrict Mainland entry to those who had taken the Chinese-made Sinovac Covid-19 vaccination, posing a headache for travellers from India, USA and elsewhere without immediate access to this particular vaccine. With almost half of the Hong Kong population vaccinated with the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine, China is reconsidering the issue.

Sri Lanka and Maldives (with record arrivals for the latter touching 200,000 by mid-March 2021), were struggling to keep their doors open and by May, Maldives had barred all South Asian travellers. Cambodia’s brief flirtation had come to an end by early 2021. 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 but by early 2021 Japan had 152 countries on a no-entry list.

On 1 February Myanmar coup closed the door on all international flights (including relief services) until 31 May 2021 and then extended this to end of June due to Covid-19 fears.

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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 travellers.

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. 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 late 2020 the ICAO had in place an Airport Health Accreditation programme, expected to give a fillip to aviation by setting up universal protocols.

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.

So it all comes down to vaccinations and authenticated e-health-certificates.

Hong Kong outdoors could be a post-Covid healthy travel draw

Hong Kong's green and accessible outdoors may be part of the mix when travel returns fortified by safe bubbles, digital certificates, and proof of vaccinations/ photo/ Vijay Verghese


AIRLINES have been hard hit and are keen to get back in the air as fast as possible. By April 2021 airlines trialling IATA’s digital Travel Pass included Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar, Qantas, ANA, THAI, Thai Smile and Korean Air. Meanwhile British Airways recommenced limited Singapore-London services 2 June 2021.

How bad has it been for airlines? Late May 2020 THAI Airways International was before a Central Bankruptcy Court petitioning for a sweeping business reorganisation 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 had added flights to Phuket along with Chiang Mai and Samui and other domestic destinations by late 2020 (waiving rebooking fees in late April 2021) with Thai AirAsia and Agoda (the online travel agency) working together on joint packages for domestic Thai tourism, seen as the recovery vehicle. Thai Vietjet too had launched a Bangkok-Khon Khaen service 30 July 2020.

On 25 March 2021 six Thai airlines – nicknamed the ‘Thai Travel Squadron’ – announced a joint approach to lower domestic airfares under the aegis of the newly created Thailand Airlines Association.

Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon combined carried just over 18,473 passengers in May 2020 (a drop of 99.4% compared to May 2019). Dragon was later merged with the parent CX that in turn secured a massive HK$39bn in recapitalisation financing to help it scrape along. Cathay still announced a massive loss of US$1.42 billion for 2020 and in January 2021 the airline carried an average of just 1,000 passengers per day (another 99% drop over the previous January). To facilitate travel Cathay was offering free Covid-19 travel insurance to passengers.

Air France/KLM had lined up for a bailout by late February 2021 as well, a tale all too similar around the world. More positively, by mid-2021 KLM had announced its return to Phuket (via Kuala Lumpur) from October 2021.

The pressure on revenue is one reason why empty middle seats did not materialise in 2020 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,” said Joyce. Qantas removed most of its international seat inventory till end March 2021.

FlyersRights.org a consumer rights organisation has pressed the US to increase social distancing measures aloft by keeping middle seats empty (by late March 2021 only Delta was adhering to this policy). One novel suggestion by the group is that the US government purchase all the middle seats (to keep them empty and ensure a revenue base for airlines), drawing down on this ‘advance purchase’ at a later date for government travel.

\On 1 September 2020 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.

Qatar Airways mid-2020 was already touching points like Dhaka, Istanbul, Islamabad, Jakarta, Lahore, Rome, Sydney and Singapore with strong coverage of the US market. 

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.

Hong Kong continues to off and on  ban Air-India 'vande mataram' repatriation flights with imported cases continuing. The Hong Kong Government expressed doubts about the efficacy of Covid screening and tests at Indian airports and requested stringent protocols. on 20 April 2021 all flights to Hong Kong from India, Pakistan and the Philippines were banned for a period of two weeks. Major restrictions continue. By August 2021 Air-India had resumed some flights within the subcontinent to Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives along with student repatriation flights to USA. Some Middle East flights are targeted for late October.

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.

Asian biggie Singapore Airlines reported a whopping S$142m loss third quarter 2020. By March 2021 SIA was cranking out flights to around 38 destinations (representing 20% of its pre-Covid levels). By mid-year SIA was planning a return to Bali with flights scheduled for November 2021 subject to Indonesian goivernment clearance.  Vietnam Airlines dropped its Sydney services till at least April 2021 while opening up business and student flights to Japan and leisure flights from international cities like Seoul (25 September last year). Vietnam Airlines also got the green light for repatriation and student flights to Canada by late June 2021.

Virgin Atlantic relaunched the Hong Kong-London route with five scheduled flights late February 2021 cashing in on the Chinese New Year spike. The one-way fares at HK$3,920 from 20 February were not particularly cheap but came with the promise of extra baggage. The rates run till end April the airline said. 

CRUISES Princess Cruises 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. Pandaw Cruises, which specialises in river runs, has put back India sailings for its 2021-2022 calendar. Pandaw plans a return to Myanmar river cruises by late 2022. 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. Star Cruises cranks up Malaysia voyages from 13 May 2021 with two offerings – ‘Langkawi Escape’ and ‘Straits of Malacca’ – aboard the 1,600-passenger Star Pisces.

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 2020 (including Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) it still had 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 2020. The UK is still deemed part of the EU.

In Asia, for 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.

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

AUSTRALIA & NZ Australia remained closed to most foreign arrivals and transit traffic late July 2021 save for returning Australian citizens, their families, and those having spent at least 14 days in New Zealand. All cruises have been stopped since 27 March 2020. More updates in the Australian Department of Health. A trans-Tasman travel bubble was put in place 6 April, 2021 to open a safe corridor between Australia and New Zealand. Victoria services were suspended late May following community-spread cases in Melbourne and flights may be off and on for a period as late June lockdowns arrived in Melbourne, Sydney (locked down till 28 August), Brisbane and Cairns. By mid-August however New Zealand had declared its borders closed till at least the end of 2021.

Koh Samui fun guide - Ang Thong National Marine Park is a popular side trip for divers and honeymooners as Samui Plus Sandbox gets underway

Ang Thong National Marine Park is a popular excursion from Koh Samui to survey some spectacular island formations as the Samui Plus Sandbox got underway mid-July 2021 following Phuket's reopening 1 July.  


CAMBODIA was closed to visitors April 2021 after an attempted comeback in late 2020 when visitors were required to stump up a US$3,000 deposit right off the bat. This was 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 needed 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 would 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 to come out of that initial deposit.

CHINA 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. By April 2021 certain visitors were being permitted if they had taken the China-made Sinovac vaccination.

Earlier, the Beijing Xinfadi wholesale food market outbreak mid June 2020 proved a damper but was brought under control as were later August spikes in Dalian and Xinjiang. Covid-19 appeared largely under control in China by March 2021 and with the vaccine rollout this situation is expected to remain stable. Diplomats and those undertaking essential trade or scientific work remain 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. Domestic air travel in China reached almost normal levels late 2020 and has surged in holiday periods.

HONG KONG - Hong Kong has banned all arrivals from the UK from 1 July fearing ingress by the fast-spreading Delta strain. Hong Kong and Singapore were once again in the hunt for a quarantine-free travel bubble for vaccinated passengers with a single flight in each direction carrying up to 200 passengers per day from 26 May 2021. The second travel bubble was pulled on 17 May as Singapore's new spike progressed. Talks resume July, encouraged by the Singapore dip by end June. By late May 2021 the HKSAR government wanted all unvaccinated travellers from Singapore, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Argentina,Netherlands, and Kenya to undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine with proof of a negative coronavirus test 72 hours prior to boarding.

Under the earlier planned bubble arrangement, travellers from Hong Kong would require to have had two shots of BioNTech (Pfizer) or Sinovac at least 14 days prior to travel. Singaporeans did not face the same restriction but passengers in either direction would have had to have been in either city for a duration of 14 days (not including any quarantine periods) before travel. All travellers would need to take two tests for Covid within 72 hours of departure and two more upon arrival at their own cost. This would amount to roughly HK$2,800 for a passenger from Hong Kong. An earlier date for November 2020 was pulled a day before launch on 21 November 2020 as a fourth wave in Hong Kong proved to be a spoiler.

Hong Kong is also exploring more open arrangements for vaccinated travellers with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand while opening the doors to HK residents returning from the UK (a country that had been completely isolated following the variant strain spread).

Since December 2020 Hong Kong has had a 21-day quarantine in place for all visitors apart from those from China. Visitors must stay at designated hotels and take designated transport. Some Hong Kong travel advisory updates.

INDIA was undergoing a huge Covid-19 surge by May 2021 with several places (including New Delhi) under lockdown and hospitals running out of space, oxygen, and equipment. The Delhi lockdown was eased 14 June. With a ban on most scheduled commercial air traffic - the country is setting its sights long-term on medical tourism in 2021 with wellness visas to lure in long-term yoga, spa, and health medicine aficionados. At the same time India was working to set up safe travel bubbles with countries like China, Japan and Singapore as well as a couple of Middle East countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Travel bubbles were set up earlier with both Seychelles and Uzbekistan. Masks are a must on all flights and non-compliance will result in offloading of the passenger.

Earlier, an optimistic Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced late August 2020 that domestic travel could reach normal levels by November during 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. By April 2021 India was undergoing an enormous return of Covid-19 with hospitalisations and death rates spiking to new highs as the government scrambled to reassess things. Vaccinations are underway.

Look at the latest Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recommendations.

INDONESIA & BALI - By late June 2021 doctors were calling for a countrywide 'hard lockdown' of Indonesia - or at least for Java - as a second wave erupted largely driven by the Indian Covid-19 Delta variant, overwhelming hospitals and claiming the lives of doctors. Earlier Bali had launched its 'Sleeve Up' vaccination campaign and was looking at a July opening for so-called 'green zones' in the tourist areas of Nusa Dua, Sanur and Ubud for travellers from countries with quarantine-free bubbles in place. Chief on the list are Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. The July 2021 restart was untenable and plans for reopening are on hold as Indonesian Covid spikes continued. The country would like to open the Three Bs (perhaps starting with a Singapore bubble) - Bali, Bintan and Batam.

Singapore Airlines has scheduled Bali flights from November 2021 if it gets a go-ahead from the Indonesian government.

Earlier, in late August 2020 the country had still blocked all foreign leisure arrivals and visas had been suspended. Bali’s governor, in an abundance of caution, had pushed back domestic tourism too given the outbreaks in Java (and Jakarta and Surabaya in particular). 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.

JAPAN continues to bar visitors from many countries it deems high risk and serves up tough quarantine measures yet the Olympics have got underway. It had again barred entry to all foreign non-resident visitors (late March 2021) with Covid on the rise, threatening the Olympic Games. By 30 December 2020 Japan had a list of 152 countries on a banned list for inbound travel. 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 were earlier cancelled. When travel re-emerges, all visitors much produce negative Covid-19 test results. Japan and Laos meanwhile had 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. Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Taiwan were added shortly thereafter to the bubble list (with restrictions).

Short-term business travellers from Singapore were to be exempted from a 14-day self-quarantine after arrival in Japan but were required to limit their travel to residence and office with no use of public transportation and other random contact. On 21 September 2020 Vietnam Airlines had 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 select residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Otherwise, the city remains sealed. By August 2021, the city had tightened restrictions on Chinese visitors as well with a requirement for PCR tests 72 hours before a flight (rather than the earlier seven days).

MALAYSIA had lockdowns and tough curbs in place for interstate travel by early July 2021 as it battled rising Covid cases. By August 2021 Sabah in Eastern Malaysia was exploring travel bubbles and point-to-point tourism in the state with full vaccination for all travel industry staff. The country was initially closed to international visitors till 31 August, 2020 and by mid-September AirAsia was offering domestic fares as low as RM39 to spark a recovery in travel. With leisure tourism to the country effectively blocked, any traveller intending to visit for business or other official purposes needs a 'Letter of Undertaking and Indemnity'. With the late October 2020 Covid spike under control by April 2021 domestic travel was underway once again. Sarawak (Eastern Malaysia) dropped the Covid test requirement of Malaysian travellers March 2021 but maintained its 15-day quarantine.

MALDIVES opened the door to foreign travellers 15 July 2020 and by September 2020 all tourists could receive a 30-day visa if in possession of a negative PCR test certificate issued within 72 hours before arrival. In May 2021, alarmed at surges across India, travellers from South Asian countries were barred. Undeterred by this, The Ritz-Carlton Maldives had opened by June 2021 with room rates from US$3,000. By mid-July 2021 the doors flew open and visas-on-arrival were available once again to travellers from India who are required to produce a negative RT-PCR test report. This applies to those who have had both doses of an Covid vaccine. On 1 January 2022 a US$30 departure tax will replace the $15 airport service fee.

Earlier, mid-April the Maldives had scrapped the negative PCR test requirement for those with valid inoculation certificates at least two weeks prior to arrival. The archipelago ‘with naturally self-isolated islands’ had racked up a record 200,000 visitors by mid-March 2021 (still a 41% drop on the previous year), with the biggest tourist arrivals recorded from India (24%), Russia and the Ukraine. Travellers do not need to undergo any quarantine or produce test results. They are, however, screened at the airport with temperatures recorded. Procedures to watch. There was a small Covid spike post opening at nine luxury island resorts but there was no major community spread beyond the Male atolls.

NEPAL- By May 2021 the country was experiencing a tragic Covid surge as the virus swept across its porous border with India. Earlier, bowing to immense pressure from the travel industry, the government had opened the country for international visitors late 2020, but saw few takers. A negative PCR test and a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine are required. Despite the setbacks, assaults on Mt Everest were continuing through May. International relief and repatriation flights commenced to Nepal in June 2021 from China, Turkey and Qatar.

MYANMAR had resumed some domestic flights late December and was exploring international links but a Covid spike late in the year scuppered both. With new UK Covid strain emerging, all UK arrivals have been blocked as well. Myanmar Airways International (MAI) announced it resumes some international repatriation flights from July. The savage February 2021 coup by the military has put a further damper on travel with international flights held back until 31 May 2021. By mid April 2020 the Pandaw river cruise company had pulled all sailings in Myanmar though it announced a schedule for IndoChina late 2022-2024.

PHILIPPINES started cautiously opening up select areas to domestic travel with a flicker of hope for forign arrivals. By June 2021 some travel was possible (with PCR tests) to Boracay, La Union, Ilocos Norte, and Panglao Island off Bohol. Earlier, the country had suspended all foreign arrivals 22 March 2021 to 21 April 2021 as it fought a Covid comeback. The white-sand resort island of Boracay reopened earlier in October 2020 for domestic tourists (it had been closed for a beach and sea clean-up) while a planned safe travel corridor to South Korea had to be shelved till later in 2021. Late July 2021 visitors from Malaysia and Thailand were barred entry in an effort to curb the Delta variant spread. Manila and several districts were back in full lockdown from 6-20 August 2021 as the Delta variant spread.

SEYCHELLES - As early as 1 June 2020, the Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles were open to arrivals from 19 countries including Thailand, Japan, China and New Zealand. Private charter flights were open from approved countries and commercial flights were being considered. By March 2021 a travel bubble was in place with India. Passengers are required to have obtained a negative Covid test prior to boarding. The reopening has been steady and on 25 March 2021 Seychelles dropped its 14-day quarantine for travellers. The islands are closed to residents of South Africa and those who have visited that country over the two weeks prior to their planned Seychelles holiday.

SINGAPORE throws open quarantine-free entry (without reciprocity) 26 August 2021 for Hong Kong, Macao, China, New Zealand. The city state says it needs to open the economy to avoid long-term damage and Covid-19 is here to stay as an endemic issue. Also back on track are vaccinated travel lanes for Germans and citizens of Brunei. Again, no quarantine is required. Of course, travellers from these countries may face quarantines on their return. Hong Kong-Singapore bubble talks are off. By late August over 77% of Singapore's residents had been fully vaccinated. This trial balloon may lead to more openings if a Covid surge is kept at bay.

The city state has tightened controls and extended quarantines to 21 days for most countries as small outbreaks continued through May 2021. By 14 June controls were relaxing once again as the country moved from Phase 2 of recovery to Phase 3.

Singapore finally closed a glaring loophole in entry requirements for its citizens who thus far have been permitted to return without undergoing any tests - potentially putting other passengers at risk (airlines normally follow government rules for the arrival destination). From 30 May 2021 all Singapore nationals and permanent residents need a negative Covid-19 PCR test within 72 hours prior to travel unless flying in from designated low-risk countries like China, Hong Kong, Macau, Brunei and Australia after an uninterrupted stay of at least 21 days.

While earlier eyeing several 'low-risk' countries for travel relaxations - like China, Vietnam, Australia, Macau, Taiwan and Malaysia - Singapore called off the Hong Kong-Singapore quarantine-free bubble planned for 26 May 2021 (for the second time). Talks are off as Singapore starts dealing with Covid as an endemic problem that must be lived with..

Earlier, the island state had cancelled green lane agreements with Germany, Malaysia and South Korea - for a 'reciprocal green lane' RGL for business travel and official work starting 1 February 2021. With Covid reasonably under control in the island state, Singapore is as yet accessible only for residents and citizens. The country has a ‘four-pronged’ approach to lift restrictions gradually through 2021.

The Air Travel Pass (ATP) programme started 8 September. A partial easing of the lockdown on the island was instituted 18 June.  From 17 June 2020 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 had not travelled out of these countries for two weeks prior to boarding would “no longer have to serve their SHN [stay-at-home notice] at dedicated SHN facilities.” Singapore citizens and long-term pass holders could serve out the 14-day period at their homes. All others were to be placed at dedicated SHN centres. All travellers needed to undergo a Covid-19 test a few days before their quarantine ended. Facility stay (S$2,000) and test costs (up to S$200) were to be passed on to the travellers.

It is likely Singaporeans may be unable to travel abroad freely until late 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 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 had earlier reported a fresh outbreak with almost 300 cases in Seoul (largely linked to a right wing church group) Sunday 16 August 2020 as the government tried to move against religious groups that still congregated or were 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. Do note that all visas issued before 5 April last year have been cancelled. Eligible inbound travellers are required to have taken a Covid test within 72 hours of their flight and this documentation/certificate is required in paper (screenshots are disallowed). Certificates must be in English or Korean.

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 went into a fresh lockdown mid-May 2021 following an unexplained spike in Covid-19 infections. It remains closed to most foreign visitors but had earlier announced an easing on restrictions for business travellers from low-risk countries like Singapore and South Korea. The island is struggling to procure vaccines.

THAILAND reopened Koh Samui mid-July shortly after an ambitious reopening of Phuket under what it termed the 'Sandbox' model allowing vaccinated foreign travellers entry without quarantine restrictions. With the innovative Phuket Sandbox scheme now expanded to a "7+7" model, holidays September 2021 on for the intrepid have opened up in southern Thailand with stays of a week each in a combination of perhaps Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi (with its fabled limestone karsts), or Phang Nga.

All Thailand domestic flights were grounded through August as the government came down hard on Covid outbreaks, limiting tourist movement. Domestic flights restart 7 September.

Starting 1 July with an estimated vaccination rate of 70% for the local population in Phuket, the sandbox approach opened entry to fully vaccinated persons from countries deemed medium or low risk. But they still proof proof of a negative PCR result within 72 hours of boarding. They need a visa and a 'certificate of entry' from a Thai embassy and they must have travel insurance worth US$100,000. This rules out casual travellers and weekend trippers. They are required to stay at least seven days on the island at an approved certified SHA hotel and then undergo one more PCR test before travelling on quarantine-free to places like Krabi, Phangnga, Samui, Chiang Mai, and Prachuap Khiri Khan south of Hua Hin on the Gulf Coast. Mid-May the required compulsory period on Phuket Island was bumped up from seven days to 14. This includes two more tests, on Day 6 and Day 13. The vaccinations will also need to be on Thailand's approved list. There remains considerable ambiguity on what exactly determines medium and low risk with officials scrambling to explain details to travellers and travel agents.

Last October 39 tourists from Shanghai arrived on a trial basis as the country explored controlled numbers from destinations deemed safe. A wristband tracker was mandatory for any persons allowed in on a Special Tourist Visa (in 90-day increments up to a maximum of 270 days). Any approved visitors also need to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

By March 2021 Thailand was testing golf-bubble tours with a group of 41 visitors from South Korea undergoing golf quarantine at a resort an hour north of Bangkok before transfer to Chiang Mai.

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 2020 the TCEB had signed up 54 hotels and eight Destination Management Companies.

TURKEY had open borders from 1 July 2020 (though the country has had some spikes since then) bundled with a "Safe Tourism" programme that includes a 15-Euros insurance (offering 3,000 Euros of medical coverage) upon arrival. By March 2021 inbound travel was still open to those with a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to travel. Visitors must have an HES health tracking application to register on their mobile phones. Arrivals from the UK, South Africa, Brazil and Denmark had been suspended as of end March 2021.

UAE cut all flights to 14 countries (including India, Bangladesh and South Africa) till late July in an effort to keep out the Covid Delta variant from India. Earlier Dubai had open doors March 2021 with vigorous protocols in place at points of entry. Permissible travellers included foreign visitors (business and leisure) as well as residents and citizens of the UAE. Passengers will need negative Covid-19 certificates and may face testing upon arrival. International health insurance is "mandatory". As of April 2021, travellers who had passed through Nigeria or South Africa in the 14 days prior to arrival in the UAE would not be allowed entry.

VIETNAM as of May 2021 allowed only foreign experts and diplomats entry with 21-day quarantines at their own cost. Visas on arrival were dropped.

The island of Phu Quoc in the far south of the country reopens for international arrivals in October 2021. Protocols include all bookings going through travel agents, vaccine passports, and swab tests at Phu Quoc Airport (this is an international facility) and results within 24 hours. A 14-day quarantine awaits anyone with symptoms. This access is open to nationals from countries deemed low risk. The visa-free status of the island is under discussion as well as an added carrot. Meanwhile the province of Khanh Hoa and the dive city of Nha Trang are back in business for domestic tourists mid October 2021, with international travel expected by December.

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