Asia tightens borders as Omicron clouds region’s return to travel | Coronavirus pandemic

Hwaseong, South Korea – Asia-Pacific countries are tightening borders and delaying reopening plans in response to the Omicron coronavirus variant, dealing a blow to the region’s already sluggish resumption of international travel.

Japan on Monday announced the country would bar foreign arrivals from Tuesday, only weeks after easing restrictions for visa holders including short-term business travellers and international students.

Australia followed the announcement on Monday by deferring plans to allow migrants and international students into the country from Wednesday until December 15, plunging into uncertainty the country’s emergence from one of the longest periods of international isolation.

The moves come after the Philippines on Sunday barred arrivals from seven European countries – including the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy – and Singapore deferred the opening of quarantine-free “travel lanes” with United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia  scheduled for next week.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday told officials to review a planned easing of restrictions on arrivals from “at-risk” countries, local media reported, only two weeks after the country reopened to tourists from 99 countries.

The announcements come on top of bans dozens of countries have already placed on arrivals from Southern Africa, where the new variant was first discovered.

Gary Bowerman, director of Kuala Lumpur-based travel and tourism research firm Check-in Asia, told Al Jazeera he expected the emergence of the Omicron variant to halt momentum towards reopening and lead some countries to reverse steps they had taken up until now.

“The problem for the travel industry is that the fear factor, whether science proves it to be justified or not, has returned almost overnight,” Bowerman said. “And this coincides with two of the region’s traditional travel periods, Christmas/New Year and Lunar New Year. Hopes for a regional travel boost were starting to grow but this will dampen, if not decimate, both.”

ThailandArrivals in most of Asia were down 99 percent on pre-pandemic levels as of September, according to Capital Economics [File: Jiraporn Kuhakan/Reuters]

Jayant Menon, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera travel bans made little sense as the variant has been spreading for weeks.

“If it turns out to be as transmissible as feared, then the bans would have come too late; if not, they were unnecessary, to begin with,” Menon said.

“Border measures will not protect against this or future variants, but improved domestic protocols might. This is where the focus should lie.”

The Asia-Pacific region, where many countries kept COVID-19 cases and deaths low with strict border controls, has lagged behind Europe and North America in resuming international travel, even where vaccinations are approaching maximum coverage.

As of September, arrivals to most of Asia were down 99 percent on pre-pandemic levels, compared with declines of just 20 percent in Mexico and about 65 percent for Southern Europe, according to data collected by Capital Economics.

Before the pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region received about 291 million tourists who added $875bn to the economy, according to the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index 2019.

While mainland China and Hong Kong have doubled down on a strict “zero COVID” policy that mandates weeks of hotel quarantine for arrivals, other countries in the region have taken cautious steps towards reopening that have prioritised certain classes of arrivals or those from particular countries.

On Monday, Singapore reopened its land border with Malaysia, one of the world’s busiest crossings, amid fears the new variant could derail the city state’s ambitions to learn to live with the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled Omicron a “variant of concern”, but has stressed it is not yet known whether it is more virulent or transmissible than other strains.

“Preliminary evidence” suggests the variant may more easily infect people who have recovered from COVID-19 than other strains, the world health agency has said. Angelique Coetzee, a South African doctor who was among the first people to identify the variant, told the BBC on Sunday she had seen only “extremely mild” symptoms in patients and she believed the world was panicking prematurely.

‘Political narrative’

Bowerman, the director of Check-in Asia, said the political landscape across the region had transformed during the last 20 months of border restrictions.

“People have been isolated in their home countries mostly for nearly two years,” he said. “Inevitably, reopening borders is going to be much tougher than closing them, even more so when the political narrative throughout that time was that closed borders were an essential mechanism to protect people from the further spread of the virus.”

Gareth Leather, senior economist for Asia at Capital Economics, described the variant as “obviously bad news for regional tourism”.

“You only need to see what has happened to the Thai baht,” Leather told Al Jazeera, referring to the slide of the Thai currency on Monday.

“Hopefully it is a false alarm but makes sense to be cautious.”