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COVID-19 AND THE ASIA TRAVEL RESTART

Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Chang open; S'pore VTLs a go, Bintan, Batam bubble on; HK slams door till 4 Feb, ups tests; Japan sealed

Thailand restarts its 'Test & Go' scheme with Pattaya and Koh Chang reopening 1 Feb 2022; Hong Kong bans passenger flights from 8 countries till 4 Feb 2022 and locks down housing estates; Japan closed to all foreigners from 30 November 2021; India pushes back international commercial flights; Bali opened 14 October 2021 but no international flights yet; Singapore restarts its Vaccinated Travel Lane no-quarantine scheme and Malaysia returns as a S'pore-Bintan-Batam travel bubble takes off.

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by Vijay Verghese

Updated 27 January, 2022

 

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

Hong Kong locked down housing blocks late Jan 2022 and ramped up testing across the city

Hong Kong: Wong Tai Sin Covid testing mobile centre draws anxious crowds in January 2022 as contact tracing app sends out proximity alerts/ photo: Derek Yung Chi Wai, Shutterstock

As OMICRON surged (WHO has listed it as a variant of concern though some evidence points to this being a milder strain), Japan sealed off the country to all foreigners 30 November 2021 and Hong Kong barred flights from eight countries till at least 4 February 2022 in a bid to stop Omicron imports as new local community cases emerged prompting January 2022 lockdowns at several housing blocks. The eight flight-ban countries are USA, UK, India, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, France, and the Philippines. The ban includes transit passengers. Restaurants are closed for dinner.

Thailand's 'Test & Go' sandbox scheme returns 1 February 2022 with Pattaya and Koh Chang signed up.

Phuket stays open (hoping Indian travellers will plug the gaps); By Jan 2022 the 'Test-and-Go' sandbox model had been extended to Phuket's neighbouring provinces of Krabi, Phang Nga and Surat Thani (Koh Samui); India, which planned to reopen international commercial flights 15 December 2021, decided to hold back for now and New Delhi had night curfews by late December/January. Omicron, the new and highly transmissable Covid variant (with over 50 mutations to its spike protein - Delta has 17), is already widespread.

USA finally reopened its borders on 8 November 2021 to fully vaccinated travellers from 33 countries, including India, China, and Europe leading to a rush for flights. The Europeopening faltered late November with rising cases that saw partial lockdowns (and vaccination mandates) in several countries including Netherlands, Denmark and Austria. Germany was open only for essential travel while tourists from non-EU countries were barred access. More Schengen visa information.

In Indonesia, by late January 2022, a Bintan-Batam travel bubble was in place for Singaporean ferry arrivals. Bali opened 14 October 2021 (with a hefty insurance requirement and a five-day quarantine - later cut to two nights) for travellers from five destinations (China, Japan, South Korea, UAE and New Zealand) and was mulling banning backpackers. By December 2021 the quarantine was up to 10 days and the island had still seen no international flights. Alll arrivals have been funneled via Jakarta. Turkish Airlines was the first to fly into Bali end October with Singapore Airlines starting scheduled Bali flights November 2021 and KLM resuming flights December 2021. Emirates had its A380s flying into Bangkok thrice-weekly by mid-November.

Nepal opened its doors to fully vaccinated visitors in October 2021 and Indians with Covishield and Covaxin were welcomed in. Across the border, India reopened after a 19-month shutdown and fully vaccinated foreigners were allowed in on chartered flights mid-October with travellers on scheduled services permitted entry quarantine-free from 15 November 2021. All ariving passengers need to test negative for Covid within 72 hours of arrival. This arrangement is open to nationals of almost 100 countries. Commercial flights to India were again on hold on Omicron fears, mid December 2021.

Travellers availing of a Thailand pass must now follow a set of tightened protocols that include a seven-day quarantine for fully vaccinated arrivals and 10 days for unvaccinaties parties.

Bangkok had restrictions in place again January 2022 though it had opened quarantine-free 1 November 2021 for visitors from several low-risk countries including UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong and China under a new Test & Go policy. By early November 63 countries were on the approved list. Travellers need a negative certificate prior to departure and will be tested upon arrival. Visitors will need to have stayed in the approved country of origin for at least 21 days. The opening extends to a few select provinces like Chonburi (not far from the capital), Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan (near Hua Hin) and Chiang Mai.

Vietnam opened the southern island of Phu Quoc to vaccinated foreigners on 20 November 2021. Vietjet chaperoned a group of South Koreans for a five-day stay in the new resort complex of Phu Quoc United Centre that hosts entertainment venues and shows along with a range of five-star hotels. The first group parked at the Vinpearl Resort & Spa Phu Quoc in this 'bubble' zone. Visitors - who get tested twice during the stay - 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 opened to domestic travellers mid October and hopes to welcome international visitors by late December 2021.

Singapore's Omicron cases were at 17 percent of the total by early January 2022 and as the city state braced for a new wave the government reiterated its commitment to fighting Covid with vaccinations and boosters. Quarantine-free arrival Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) were opened October 2021 to 11 countries including Brunei and Germany (which pioneered the move last September). Malaysia came onboard from 29 November for fully vaccinated travellers (arriving by air or overland). After a brief Covid shutdown, the Malaysia VTL was back 21 January 2022. Singapore airport's VTL lanes now also welcome travellers from South Korea, UK, Spain, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Switzerland, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Turkey and Australia (and Australia opened quarantine-free entry to Singaporeans 21 November, 2021).

Australian travel bubble with Singapore, November, and the country is hoping for a Christmas comeback assuming a vaccination target of 80% of the population. Vaccine passports could be the likely way in for international travellers. Hong Kong has meanwhile signed up the RISE Conference - a leading and influential tech forum - from March 2022 for a further five years.

With the innovative Phuket Sandbox scheme expanded to a "7+7" model, holidays for the intrepid have opened up in southern Thailand (though the brakes were applied 22 December 2021 due to Omicron fears) 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. While some sandbox schemes were shelved with the onset of Omicron, by January 2022 the Test-and-Go scheme had been extended to Krabi, Phang Nga and Surat Thani (which includes Koh Samui).

Japan continues to bar international visitors after the brief Olympic respite and there are no sigs of rules easing anytime soon.

In Europe - the Omicron epicentre by December 2021 - travel had started stirring again July 2021 as the EU started 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 fully green-lighted the Indian-manufactured Covishield vaccine (Oxford-AstraZeneca) as an approved jab for entry, leaving travel plans up in the air for many but by October 2021, approval had been okayed by Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Iceland, Switzerland and Estonia. The UK had by mid-October put out a fresh list of approved vaccines by country.

New Zealand was to reopen for Australian residents and returning Kiwis on 16 January 2022 and for vaccinated travellers from other countries from 13 February 2022. The date for returning Kiwis has been pushed back to late February 2022 and for other foreigners to 30 April 2022.

Israel’s Green Pass for domestic travel (Israelis only) was up and running by March 2021.

China earlier announced late March 2021 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 were struggling to keep their doors open but by mid-2021 South Asian travellers were welcomed back to the Maldives where record tourist numbers continue to be recorded. Cambodia's brief flirtation had come to an end by early 2021 but resumed 15 November 2021 with quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travellers. Japan and Laos signed a safe travel corridor agreement for visitors September 2020 contingent on a 14-day home quarantine and full Covid tests but by early 2021 Japan had 152 countries on a no-entry list.

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On 1 February Myanmar coup closed the door on all international flights (including relief services) for a long period, later extended due to Covid-19 fears. The country hopes to reopen to vaccinated international travellers early 2022.

Bali's welcoming 2-day quarantine was up to 10 days by December 2021 and this is expected to continue through early 2022 over Omicron fears

All eyes were on Bali as it reopened mid-October 2021 to international travellers. The first day, 14 October, saw zero international flights. By December 2021 a 10-day quarantine was in effect driven by Omicron fears and this remains in effect early 2022.

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.

AIRLINES have been hard hit and are keen to get back in the air as fast as possible. Airlines trialling IATA’s digital Travel Pass include Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar, Qantas, ANA, THAI, Thai Smile and Korean Air.

By October 2021 Emirates had adopted the IATA Travel Pass systemwide. The pass enables travellers to safely store digital information on vaccinations and tests and also offers travellers locations of clinics for Covid tests in various boarding cities. Emirates was operating its A380s on a thrice-daily schedule to Bangkok by mid-November 2021.

British Airways recommenced limited Singapore-London services 2 June 2021.

How bad has it been for airlines in general? 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. With Bangkok's quarantine-free reopening 1 November 2021, THAI  had bounced back with an international schedule (including London, Munich, Paris, Milan, Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New Delhi) running till 26 March 2022. It is under a rehabilitation programme that has seen massive cuts to jobs and aircraft leasing.

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.

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.

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. British Airways meanwhile pulled out all direct flights to Bangkok until at least March 2022, with talk of this staying in place till October 2022.

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. Over 2021 international routes have been restarted rapidly.

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. SIA lowcost subsidiary Scoot restarted flights to Indian destinations 29 November 2021.

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.

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 plans a Christmas comeback assuming the country reaches a vaccination target of 80% of the population. A quarantine-free travel bubble with Singapore was initiated 21 November.

New Zealand was to reopen for Australian residents and returning Kiwis on 16 January 2022 and for vaccinated travellers from other countries from 13 February 2022. The date for returning Kiwis has been pushed back to late February 2022 and for other foreigners to 30 April 2022.

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 were stopped as late June lockdowns arrived in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns.

More updates in the Australian Department of Health.

Bangkok reopens for international travellers 1 November 2021 - Suvarnabhumi Airport duty-free

Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport started receiving fully vaccinated international arrivals 1 November 2021 but by late December, quarantines were back. Will the acres of duty-free manage to get kick-started too? / photo: Vijay Verghese  

CAMBODIA reopened quarantine-free to vaccinated travellers 15 November after closing April 2021 following 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 might arise for medical costs or quarantines. Currently a Covid-free test result is required within 72 hours of arrival and a second test must be undertaken upon arrival. Also required is valid US$50,000 medical insurance. Unvaccinated travellers will still undergo a 14-day quarantine.

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.

Covid-19 appeared largely under control in China by March 2021 and with the vaccine rollout this situation is expected to remain stable despite occasional trace-and-isolate incidents. 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 by late 2020 and has surged in holiday periods through 2021.

HONG KONG - Hong Kong barred flights from eight countries (8-21 January, 2022) in a bid to stop Omicron imports as a few local community cases emerged. In a surfeit of caution, the flight ban was extended to 4 February 2022. The eight blocked countries are USA, UK, India, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, France, and the Philippines. The ban includes transit passengers. Restaurants are closed for dinner.

Earlier on 30 November 2021, the city had barred all arrivals from 16 'highest risk' Group A countries (blocking non-residents as well).

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.

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 Delta

strain spread).

INDIA reopened after a 19-month shutdown mid-October 2021 when fully vaccinated foreigners were allowed in on chartered flights. All ariving passengers have to test negative for Covid within 72 hours of arrival. This arrangement is open to nationals of almost 100 countries.

But international commercial flights to India were again on hold on Omicron fears, mid December 2021. A full opening had been planned for 15 December.

The country 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.

By late September 2020 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 were speeded up.

Take a l ook at the latest Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recommendations. Till late July the European Union had still not fully green-lighted the Indian-manufactured Covishield vaccine (Oxford-AstraZeneca) as an approved jab for entry but by October 2021, approval had came through for Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Iceland, Switzerland and Estonia. The UK in mid-October 2021 put out a fresh list of approved vaccines by country. This includes Covishield.

INDONESIA & BALI - By late January 2022, a Bintan-Batam travel bubble was in place for Singaporean ferry arrivals. Bali opened 14 October 2021 for travellers from five destinations (China, Japan, South Korea, UAE and New Zealand) and mulled banning backpackers. The five-day quarantine was cut to two nights (down from the earlier planned eight) and negative tests are required at both departure and arrival. The island has been pushing for limiting quarantine to one day for Covid testing.

The bad news is, by December 2021 the quarantine was up to 10 days and the island had still seen no international flights. Alll arrivals have been funneled via Jakarta.

Be warned, travellers also need Covid-19 insurance worth US$100,000. The original idea was to limit international travel just for Sanur, Ubud and Nusa Dua - destinations under the acronym SUN. Flights from Hong Kong and Singapore will be key in kick-starting travel to the island. The country has been keen for a while to open the Three Bs - Bali, Bintan and Batam.

In late June 2021 doctors had called 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.

Turkish Airlines flies into Bali end October with Singapore Airlines starting scheduled Bali flights from November 2021 and KLM flying in December 2021.

JAPAN has bared all foreign visitors and served up tough quarantine measures from 30 November 2021 over Omicron fears. The international borders will likely remain closed for the forseeable future. The country had 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. All current visas were earlier cancelled. Japan and Laos had earlier established a safe travel corridor linking the two countries and travellers would have been 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). This has all been scrapped currently.

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

The southern Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc opened to international travellers 20 November 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.


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 opened Langkawi to vaccinated international visitors from countries deemed 'safe' in mid-November 2021 but by December 2021 several countries had been blocked from the travel bubble due to Omicron. These include UK, Australia, much of Europe, Canada, Israel, South Korea, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, UAE and California in the United States. The Malaysia-Singapore VTL was restarted 21 January 2022 after a brief Covid shutdown.

Tourists to Langkawi need insurance of US$80,000, must have a Covid-free certificate prior to arrival and will undergo a fast 'rapid antigen test' on arrival or during transit through Kuala Lumpur. They need to book three nights on the island and undergo one more Covid test during their stay. The country joins Singapore's VTL scheme 29 November for fully vaccinated travellers (but only for those arriving by air). Early July 2021 the country had lockdowns and tough curbs in place for interstate travel 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. Sarawak (Eastern Malaysia) dropped the Covid test requirement of Malaysian travellers March 2021 but maintained its 15-day quarantine.

With leisure tourism to the country effectively blocked through most of 2021, any traveller intending to visit for business or other official purposes was required to get a 'Letter of Undertaking and Indemnity'.

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. The capital Male remains off limits to foreigners. In May 2021, alarmed at surges across India, travellers from South Asia 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.

MYANMAR is working on plans to resume inbound travel by vaccinated foreigners early 2022 with an initial emphasis on Southeast Asia and a travel bubble with Thailand. The country had resumed some domestic flights late December 2020 and was exploring international links but a Covid spike late in the year scuppered both. Myanmar Airways International (MAI) announced it resumed some international repatriation flights from July 2021. The savage February 2021 coup by the military has put a further damper on travel with international commercial flights held back till late 2021 or early 2022. 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.

NEPAL- In October 2021 the country reopened without quarantine to fully vaccinated foreigners. The second shot should have been had within 14 days of arrival. In a filip to tourism, Nepal confirmed that Indian travellers vaccinated with Covishield and Covaxin were also welcome. A negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival is required for all visitors. Earlier, despite the need for negative PCR tests and a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine, assaults on Mt Everest had continued through May and on.

PHILIPPINES - The country was experiencing a Covid surge January 2022. In October 2021 the country was opening to vaccinated international travellers from several countries on a green list (that includes Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Bhutan, Gibraltar, Uzbekistan and New Zealand), bypassing facility quarantines. These visitors need a negative Covid test within 72 hours of original departure. Passengers on the "yellow list" need a 14-day quarantine with the first 10 days spent in a dedicated facility. The only country on the red list late October was Romania.

Earlier, the country started cautiously opening up select areas to domestic travel. By limited travel had commenced (with PCR tests) to Boracay, La Union, Ilocos Norte, and Panglao Island off Bohol. The white-sand resort island of Boracay  reopened 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 was shelved till later in 2021.

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 were earlier closed to residents of South Africa and those who had visited that country over the two weeks prior to their planned Seychelles holiday. Seychelles also opens to international cruises in November 2021.

SINGAPORE - By late January 2022, a Bintan-Batam travel bubble was in place for Singaporean ferry arrivals. Singapore meanwhile has reiterated its commitment to fighting Covid with vaccinations and boosters.

Quarantine-free arrival Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) were opened October 2021 to 11 countries including Brunei and Germany (which pioneered the move last September). Malaysia came onboard from 29 November for fully vaccinated travellers (arriving by air or overland). The Malaysia VTL was reopened 21 January 2022 after a brief Covid closure. Singapore airport's VTL lanes now also welcome travellers from South Korea, UK, Spain, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Switzerland, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Turkey and Australia (and Australia opened quarantine-free entry to Singaporeans 21 November, 2021). Visitors need to show negative Covid results at departure and upon arrival. Somewhat blunting this move, on 25 October 2021 Germany placed Singapore in a special category requiring a quarantine of from five to ten days depending on vaccination and previous Covid infection status. A travel bubble with Australia is due in November.

Singapore casinos required full vaccination or proof of i

mmunity for all gamers by early October 2021. Social separation at tables and limits on numbers in salons is part of the new norm.

Singapore threw open quarantine-free entry (without reciprocity) 26 August 2021 for Hong Kong, Macao, China, New Zealand but a Covid spike scuttled the move. 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. Hong Kong-Singapore bubble talks are off. By late October Singapore had fully vaccinated 84 percent of the population with a Covid case count of over 4,000 active cases, most in home recovery.

SOUTH KOREA in mid-October 2021 started relaxing stringent controls on social gatherings in a new "living with Covid-19" strategy. Korean Air has a frequently updated page on inbound traveller requirements in Covid times. All passengers must undertake a two-week quarantine at home and those without a domestic residence will be quarantined at a government facility (with a price earlier set at W1,400,000). Do note that all visas issued before 5 April 2020 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.

Quarantine exemptions may be possible for fully vaccinated persons - with WHO-approved vaccines Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Janssen, Moderna, Covishield, Sinopharm/Sinovac -visiting South Korea to be with immediate family, to conduct important business, or those engaged in academic or humanitarian work. The full vaccination sequence should have been completed at least two weeks prior to arrival.

SRI LANKA started welcoming international visitors once again from 1 August, 2020, and the journey promises to be fairly trouble-free if less than serendipitous. SriLankan Airlines has an updated page on Covid travel protocols. At recommencement, arrivals needed a Covid-free certificate issued within 72 hours of the boarding time and a coronavirus test administered at Colombo airport. This to be followed up by one more check within five days. Travellers were required to commit to a minimum of five days in Sri Lanka booking only designated hotels. They could not use public transport. For the intrepid wishing to stay over 10 days there was yet another Covid-19 test 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. China Airlines has a dedicated page on Covid travel and quarantine updates for Taiwan.

THAILAND - While some sandbox schemes were shelved December 2021 with the onset of Omicron, by January 2022 the Test-and-Go scheme had been extended to Krabi, Phang Nga and Surat Thani (which includes Koh Samui). In December quarantines were back and the Thailand Pass changed arrival protocols. The 'Test & Go' sandbox scheme was restarted 1 February 2022 to include Pattaya and Koh Chang island.

The country had earlier opened for quarantine-free travel to fully vaccinated foreigners 1 November 2021 with access to specific provinces and Bangkok was opened quarantine-free 1 November 2021 (in January 2022 restrictions were in place) for visitors from several low-risk countries including UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong and China under a new Test & Go policy. Travellers needed a negative certificate prior to departure and will be tested upon arrival. Visitors will need to have stayed in the approved country of origin for at least 21 days.

Earlier, Koh Samui reopened 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. While some sandbox schemes were shelved with the onset of Omicron, by January 2022 the Test-and-Go scheme had been re-extended to Krabi, Phang Nga and Surat Thani (which includes Koh Samui).

Starting 1 July 2021 with an estimated vaccination rate of 70% at the time 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 need 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.

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.

With Bangkok's quarantine-free reopening 1 November 2021, THAI  had bounced back with an international schedule (including London, Munich, Paris, Milan, Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New Delhi) running till 26 March 2022.

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 - Dubai had opened its doors August 2020 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 late October 2021, travellers who had passed through South Africa in the 14 days prior to arrival in the UAE would not be allowed entry.

Here's what travellers need to look at. Ensure valid health insurance and download the COVID-19 DXB app. Visitors need to produce a negative test result up to 96 hours before the flight departure. Travellers from high-risk countries will be tested once again on arrival. UAE Residents and citizens do not require a negative test but they can expect to be tested upon arrival.

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 reopened for international arrivals on 20 November 2021 (pushed back a month due to the slow rate of local vaccinations). Vietjet chaperoned a group of South Koreans for a five-day stay in the new resort complex of Phu Quoc United Centre that hosts entertainment venues and shows along with a range of five-star hotels. The first group parked at the Vinpearl Resort & Spa Phu Quoc in this 'bubble' zone.

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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