Asian neighbors wary of COVID-19 but eager for cash as China reopens

SEOUL — With China’s vast population finally freed to travel as Beijing lifts its prohibitive “zero-COVID” quarantine requirements on Sunday, wary nations across East Asia are strategizing on how to handle a sudden influx of pent-up Chinese tourism demand.

Given the COVID-19 surge in China as the communist regime abandons its strict shutdown policies while offering only hazy numbers of new cases, it is a dilemma that has produced a clear schism in regional capitals over whether and how to welcome the lucrative Chinese travelers and their much-needed yuan.

On China’s periphery, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all run by pro-American governments and wary of what Chinese tourists could bring with them, are imposing specific measures upon travelers from the mainland.

On the other hand, the Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are holding fire and declining to apply special measures against Chinese visitors.  

The Northeast Asia democracies, all manufacturing powerhouses, rely less on tourism than their sunnier Southeast Asia counterparts. But in recent years, both Japan and South Korea have been promoting inbound travel, while Vietnam, conversely, is a rising force in high-tech manufacturing.

After three years of going it virtually alone with the zero-COVID approach, the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping finally relented last month in the face of growing public unrest and abandoned mass lockdowns and mass testing. Reports from the country suggest the shift has released a viral tsunami across the country, with hospital ICUs and crematoria running at capacity. Beijing, in response, has curbed or canceled the release of updated numbers on infections and death rates due to COVID.

That lack of transparency sparked rare criticism from officials at the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO), who said they were “extremely concerned” about the lack of clarity about China’s about-face. Others concur, saying China is “behind the curve” compared to its regional neighbors who moved more quickly to a gradual re-opening as COVID rates fell.

“The world has gone through so much with COVID, so many lessons have been learned,” Jerome Kim, the director general of the International Vaccine Institute, told The Washington Times. “A country that was so successful at ‘zero-COVID’ could have planned a successful release like Australia or South Korea.”

Mass export of COVID

For governments now, the situation raises the risk of a mass export of COVID infections from the world’s most populous country. Last week, Beijing announced it would scrap quarantine restrictions for travelers on Sunday, and would also start reissuing passports and visas. With reports from China that online travel bookings are spiking, the floodgates could open.

Whatever public health challenge that presents, no government can ignore economics, and China is — by far — the richest font of outbound tourists on the planet.

In 2019, the year before COVID decimated travel, Chinese tourists spent $254.6 billion worldwide, according to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization, or UNWTO.

The spending power of Chinese tourists far outstrips any other. The next biggest spenders were Americans, with $152.3 billion, followed by Germans, with $92.2 billion.

But there is little time to prepare tourism and immigration systems for a Chinese influx, for while the brief New Year’s weekend is over, China’s – and the region’s – biggest holiday is imminent.

This year, China’s Lunar New Year vacation runs for eight days starting Saturday, Jan. 21. During the last pre-COVID New Year’s holiday in 2019, some 415 million Chinese traveled internally, while 6.3 million traveled overseas — numbers that led some travel analysts to dub the holiday the world’s biggest annual migration.

It represents a potential windfall for regional tourism sectors, which badly need the business after a pandemic shutdown that decimated business for two years.

When COVID-19 expanded outward from China in early 2020, global tourism shriveled. Tourism revenues in 2020 were $935 billion short of 2019’s figure, pushing the sector back to levels not seen in three decades, the UNWTO estimated.

The U.N. analysts found that Asia-Pacific was the hardest-hit region, suffering an 82% drop in tourism. Europe and the Americas, by contrast, declined by 68%.

Different paths

What are governments to do? Approaches vary.

South Korean airports this week reportedly experienced significant delays as authorities began administering COVID tests for travelers inbound from China — a policy announced at the very end of December. Even after taking the test, all arrivals from China must self-isolate for two days, pending a negative result. Those procedures do not apply to other nations.

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo visited Incheon International to monitor the situation, where there were complaints being reported from some travelers.

The South Korean response follows an earlier move by Japan. Last Friday, Tokyo mandated COVID tests for all arrivals from China — a policy it previously applied only to those who showed signs of being infected. Taiwan, too, announced that it would be testing all arrivals from China starting from the first day of 2023.

The economies of Southeast Asia, many far more dependent on tourism as a percentage of GDP, are proving more flexible in welcoming back Chinese tourists.

Health authorities in Hanoi, citing the large numbers of Vietnamese who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or who have been infected and recovered, said last week it would not ban or test incoming Chinese. 

Thailand anticipates welcoming some 5 million Chinese visitors this year, but Thai health authorities who met this week have not announced any specific steps against visitors from China, a policy also being followed by Indonesia.

In an unusual move, Malaysia said it would not test Chinese travelers, but it would monitor toilet waste water on aircraft arriving from Chinese airports for signs of COVID.

The Philippines’ policy is unclear, but Manila has stated the urgent need for special monitoring of visitors from China.

Moves by other nations — which further afield now include France, Italy, Israel Australia, Canada and the U.S. — to apply special precautions regarding Chinese entrants have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.

The outspoken, state-controlled Global Times news website charged that these nations “see China’s reopening as another chance to defame Beijing,” adding, “the U.S. propaganda machine is also running like crazy to smear China.”

But even Global Times admitted that Chinese caseloads have been “ballooning in the recent exit wave,” and quoted a local doctor as saying, “It is hard to get an accurate grasp of the death rate when the infection spreads fast.”

Mr. Kim of the International Vaccine Institute said there was still a danger of successive waves of infection as Chinese domestic and international travel takes off over the Lunar New Year holiday week. The efficiency of China’s domestic COVID vaccines poses another worry: Though the data is inconclusive, Mr. Kim noted reports that have found China’s two main vaccines, with 51% and 79% efficacies, don’t match Western mRNA vaccines, with 90% efficacy.

“The population is big enough, with high- and low-density areas, that there could be successive waves,” he said. “In the U.S., it tends to start on the coasts, migrates in, then bounces back out, and China is big enough for that to be seen as well.”

A combination of widespread infections with low booster rates among elderly Chinese could trigger a major public health crisis. “The implications are the spread of a generation of new variants we really don’t know about,” Mr. Kim said.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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