Thailand and Bali are reopening to tourists despite omicron

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Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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Southeast Asian countries came down hard on covid, closing or heavily restricting their borders for much of the last two years. Few bob in Uluwatu’s famous surf, and Thailand’s white sand beaches are deserted for the first time in decades.

This week, with omicron still raging, Thailand and Bali loosened their restrictions on foreign entry in an effort to begin reopening to tourism.

More broadly, from Asia to Europe, many countries are moving more quickly in this wave to relax border controls and social restrictions. Even some of the most closed countries are joining in—New Zealand, which had some of the strictest border policies in the world, announced reopening plans this week, and Australia the previous week.

The borders are more open, but there are still restrictions

Starting Feb. 1, Thailand lifted the requirement for a seven-day mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign arrivals, switching to a system called “Test & Go,” which was initially rolled out late last year, but suspended due to omicron. Tourists must register for a pass to enter with the Thai government. They’re required to get an RT-PCR test 72 hours before flying to Thailand, and must have medical insurance with coverage of at least $50,000. Visiting foreigners who test positive have previously had to go into mandatory facility-based quarantine, even if asymptomatic, and a few insurance plans cover hospital stays that are not medically necessary.

Tourists must book two non-consecutive nights in an accredited hotel, which administers an RT-PCR test on the day of arrival. If it comes back negative the next day, the visitor is released, then required to return to the hotel on the 5th day to repeat the overnight process. Fully vaccinated adults from any country are eligible to apply to enter Thailand on the Test & Go program. Adults with a medical certificate of recovery can enter the country with one vaccine dose.

On Feb. 4, Bali, Indonesia, also reopened to all nationalities. The lack of flights to the island stymied its previous attempt at opening three months ago, but according to the Bali Sun, a local newspaper, the tourism minister confirmed that flights to Bali would resume in line with the reopening.

A quarantine of five to seven days will still be required for vaccinated visitors to Bali, and the quarantine days can be spent in accredited hotels or live-aboard ships. The minister said more details about visa and insurance requirements will be released in the coming days.

On Feb. 10, the Philippines, which has been closed to most non-citizens since March 2020, will begin allowing fully-vaccinated foreigners to enter the country again, with the only requirement being a negative RT-PCR test taken 48 hours before departing for the Philippines. Unvaccinated travelers are still required to do a mandatory five-day hotel quarantine, plus nine days of home quarantine.

Singapore is also moving forward with its quarantine-free “vaccinated travel lanes,” restarting the program with India and Australia this week.

The International Air Travel Association maintains a map of travel restrictions around the world.

A long, hard pandemic for Asia’s tourism industry

Before the pandemic, foreign tourism contributed about 11% of Thailand’s GDP, according to the Bank of Thailand. In 2019, 40 million tourists brought in $60 billion in revenue. By the third quarter of 2020, after Thailand closed its borders, the Ministry of Tourism and Sports logged zero foreign arrivals. The precipitous drop transformed the economy, and has a long way to go. In 2021, Thailand had 427,000 visitors, and government estimates suggest that the industry may not recover until 2026.

For Bali, where tourism made up 54% of its economy, the drop was even more stark. For the whole of 2021, the Indonesian island received just 45 foreign tourists, compared with 6.2 million in 2019.

In November 2021, a study by the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, found that 1.6 million people lost their jobs in the tourism industry in five countries in Asia where data was available (Brunei, Thailand, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Vietnam). Tourism job losses were four times higher than in other industries.

Tourism isn’t back

While this week’s reopening represents a notable shift among some Asian countries that had previously relied on strict border restrictions to control covid, the days of casually buying a ticket a day or two before a flight have not returned. The costs of RT-PCR tests, specialized insurance, hotel quarantines, and the potential of catching covid while traveling means there is still friction, and risk, involved in a beach vacation.

Even as the tourist powerhouses of Southeast Asia may be wearying of the hyper-vigilance they’ve maintained at their borders for nearly two years, the decision to revive tourism is not unilateral. Before the pandemic, China made up the largest share of foreign tourist arrivals in most Southeast Asian countries. The county’s strict covid-zero policies deter citizens from making international trips. With Chinese tourists still locked in, countries like Thailand won’t see the numbers of tourist arrivals of previous years.

For other places, like Kyoto, the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink the reliance on tourism, with some concluding that they don’t want tourists back at all.