Thailand, Australia and Israel eased international border restrictions significantly this week for the first time in 18 months, offering a broad test of demand for travel worldwide amid the coronavirus pandemic.
he relaxation contrasts with tightening lockdowns elsewhere, notably in eastern Europe where infections have hit record numbers and in parts of China, which has taken a zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 despite relatively few cases.
Hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrived in the Thai capital for quarantine-free travel after the Southeast Asian nation approved visitors from more than 60 countries, including China and the United States.
Several European nations are also on the list as Thailand, one of Asia’s most popular holiday destinations, looks to capitalise on the approach of winter in the northern hemisphere.
“We just picked this flight and it is quite surprising that we are the first flight to arrive,” said German tourist Simon Raithel, 41, who planned to head to the Thai south.
In Sydney, hundreds of citizens were greeted by family and friends as they became the first since April 2020 to arrive from abroad without a permit or the need to quarantine.
“(It’s a) little bit scary and exciting,” said Ethan Carter, who flew in from Los Angeles. “I’ve come home to see my mum ’cause she’s not well.”
While travel is initially limited to just a few states and to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families and New Zealand nationals, it heralds a plan to re-open to international tourists and workers.
‘We missed you guys’
Israel also relaxed travel rules on Monday but tourists should read the fine print before booking.
“Welcome to Israel,” the government said in a tweet next to a big blue heart. “We missed you guys.”
Individual tourists are allowed in if they have received vaccine boosters – but not if more than six months have lapsed since their last dose, with some exceptions.
That has tempered excitement among hoteliers.
“How many tourists out in the world have actually gotten boosters or are sitting in that six-month period following their second dose?” Israel Hotel Association CEO Yael Danieli said in the days leading up to the relaxation.
Travellers arriving on the first quarantine-free international flight are embraced by family at Sydney International Airport. Photo: Bianca Demarch/Reuters.
“Even if both parents in a family are vaccinated, their children under 12 are not, so they mostly can’t come to Israel.”
Members of tour groups are exempted from the six-month rule but will have to take PCR or antigen tests every 72 hours for the first two weeks of their stay.
Despite the eased curbs, world travel in full swing is a long way off.
China’s tourism sector is suffering from the country’s zero tolerance for Covid-19 as cities with infections, or even with concerns about infections, close entertainment venues, restrict travel or delay cultural events.
Shanghai Disneyland stopped admitting visitors on Monday.
Eastern Europe is grappling with its worst outbreak since the pandemic started. Latvia, for example, has imposed a strict national lockdown to November 15.
The Russian capital introduced its strictest lockdown measures in more than a year last Thursday as the daily tally of cases and deaths nationwide hit new highs.
But many Russians have decided that now is an ideal time to fly off for a foreign holiday, with a sharp increase in bookings to destinations where Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is recognised or where Covid entry requirements are cheap and easy.
“Don’t quarantine, but holiday on the beach!” travel company Orange Sun Tour proclaims on its website osttour.ru, which offers breaks in Cyprus, Egypt, Cuba and elsewhere.
Rules aimed at moving South Korea towards “living with Covid-19” came into effect on Monday, with the easing of a range of curbs and the introduction of vaccine passports at gyms, saunas and bars.
“The return path to everyday life, to which we’re taking the first step today, is a path we’ve never been on,” Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told an intra-agency Covid-19 meeting.
The Netherlands will impose new coronavirus restrictions this week in a bid to curb a recent surge in infections, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said, without giving details.
Britain on Monday removed the last seven countries on its coronavirus “red list”, which required newly arrived travellers to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine.
Cases in Ireland have been rising, but no new lockdown measures or travel restrictions have been introduced to date.
The United States will lift international travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers on November 8.
Reporting by Jonathan Barrett, Jamie Freed, Rami Ayyub, Jill Gralow, Jiraporn Kuhakan, Orathai Sriring and Artorn Pookasook; additional lines by Pól Ó Conghaile.