Across Asia, borders are opening and quarantine measures are lifting as even the last few countries clinging to Covid restrictions embrace a return to travel.
Except, that is, in one country: China.
After having their economies battered by nearly three years of halted travel, several countries in the region have reopened their doors in the past few months – bringing relief not only to their tourism industries, but to millions of residents who struggled with job insecurity and family separations during the pandemic.
But in China – which has seen its own economy suffer from a strict zero-Covid policy involving tight border controls, snap lockdowns and mandatory quarantines – there appears to be no end in sight to the restrictions, despite mounting public frustration.
Hopes that Beijing might relax its policies after the much-anticipated Communist Party Congress later this month fell after the state-run People’s Daily on Tuesday described the approach as the “best choice.”
“At times like this, we need to realize that ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ is sustainable and must be followed,” it said in a commentary, pointing to ongoing outbreaks in the country.
It added that the zero-Covid policy had minimized the economic impact of the virus and helped keep the mortality rate low. “We cannot relax prevention and control (measures),” it said.
Parts of East Asia open up
China’s stance means it is an outlier even in East Asia, where governments have been slowest to end Covid restrictions.
For much of the pandemic, zero-Covid was the norm across much of the region – with many countries and territories continuing restrictions even when vaccines became widely available in 2021.
Hong Kong – a semi-autonomous Chinese city that has separate border policies than that of the mainland – ended what was once one of the world’s strictest quarantine arrangements in September. The decision was celebrated by vacation-starved residents, business owners and government departments dependent on tourism.
Also in September, the self-governing island of Taiwan further opened up by resuming visa free entry for visitors from places including the United States and the European Union. This came after the government reduced its mandatory quarantine from seven to three days for international arrivals beginning from June.
Japan, one of Asia’s most popular tourism destinations, reopened with much fanfare in June 2022 – though it only allowed tourists to come in organized groups rather than as individuals.
Tourists were slow to return, and, perhaps sensing the unpopularity of this approach, Japan relented in September, throwing open its doors to individual tourists with no daily limit on the number of entrants.
The results were swift, with Singapore-based international travel service provider Trip.com reporting a spike in bookings and searches for Japan that month. The highest spike came from South Korea, which saw a 194% increase in bookings to Japan – but similar increases were reported in European countries including Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom.
South Korea lifted quarantine requirements for all international travelers, regardless of nationality and vaccination status, in June.
And it seems the bid has paid off. The country saw nearly 311,000 arrivals, of which more than half were tourists, in August – compared to just 97,000 arrivals during the same period last year, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service.
Southeast Asia’s head start
Some countries in Southeast Asia, whose economies rely heavily on tourism, got a head start on their East Asian counterparts by beginning to open up last year – and are already reaping the rewards.
Vietnam began allowing foreign travelers to visit designated places under a vaccine passport program last November and fully reopened in March, three months earlier than originally planned.
In 2019, tourism had made up 12% of the country’s GDP, and authorities are eager to get back to those pre-pandemic levels. Vietnam saw 1.87 million international visitors in the first nine months of this year – 16 times higher than the same period in 2021, according to government statistics.
“All indicators of the tourism industry have miraculously recovered,” said Nguyen Trung Khanh, director general of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, according to the government-owned news site VietnamNet.
“Thanks to the explosion of domestic tourists after the Covid-19 epidemic, after half of the year the industry already obtained the targets set for the entire year.”
Thailand began allowing fully vaccinated travelers last November, under a program that was briefly suspended during the spread of the Omicron variant. It re-launched the program early this year and has continued to ease restrictions in recent months.
By the fall, Thai officials were celebrating. More than one million tourists arrived in September alone, said government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri – and the government is hoping to hit 10 million visitors for the full year.
It’s still lower than pre-pandemic levels; Thailand saw nearly 40 million visitors in 2019. But the country is firmly on the path to recovery, with tourism expected to hit 80% of pre-pandemic levels by next year, according to Burapachaisri.
Even with the global economic slowdown, Thailand isn’t too worried. “During the winter, European tourists want to escape the cold to Thailand,” said the country’s Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith in October.
China the odd man out
Such reopenings stand in stark contrast to the situation in mainland China, where people have become used to the possibility of being caught up in snap lockdowns.
Last week, China banned all 22 million residents in Xinjiang from leaving the region during a Covid-19 outbreak – just weeks after it began relaxing restrictions from an earlier lockdown.
Tourist hot spots have been hit, too – the ancient city of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, imposed a snap lockdown after discovering just two cases. The city of Zhangjiajie, home to a scenic national park, locked down over just one case. And last week, hundreds of tourists were stranded in an airport in the Xishuangbanna prefecture of Yunnan province due to a snap lockdown.
Officials are on high alert with less than a week to go before China’s ruling Communist Party holds its twice-a-decade national congress, where leader Xi Jinping is expected to secure a norm-breaking third term in power.
Authorities nationwide have worked to smooth the way in the run-up to the congress – a particularly sensitive time – by tightening already-strict Covid rules and declaring more lockdowns.
There are other signs zero-Covid could be here to stay. Earlier this week, authorities from Shanghai’s Pudong district posted online that they were looking to hire more than 500 Covid workers on a two-year contract in order to carry out “community prevention and control work.”
The post was published on the district office’s official WeChat account and seen by CNN, but has since been taken down.
State media have also stepped up their defense of zero-Covid in recent days. In a separate commentary published Wednesday, People’s Daily claimed some countries had reopened because they had no choice after failing to “effectively control the epidemic in a timely manner.”
It argued that outbreaks in the US and Japan were evidence of the “serious consequences” of loosening restrictions – despite the fact both countries have seen their cases decline since spiking in the summer.
“Only by insisting on dynamic zero-Covid, can we avoid huge losses caused by an out-of-control epidemic,” the commentary read. “It is precisely because of our insistence on dynamic zero-Covid that we have protected people’s lives and health to the greatest extent possible.”