Thailand, Australia and Israel significantly eased restrictions at international borders this week for the first time in 18 months, providing a broad test of travel demand around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The relaxation contrasts with the tightening of lockdowns elsewhere, notably in Eastern Europe where infections are at 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 have arrived in the Thai capital to travel without quarantine after the Southeast Asian country approved visitors from more than 60 countries, including China and the United States.
Several European countries are also on the list as Thailand, one of Asia’s most popular holiday destinations, looks to take advantage of the approaching winter season in the Northern Hemisphere.
“We have just chosen this flight and it is very surprising that we are the first to arrive,” said German tourist Simon Reethel, 41, who planned to head to southern Thailand.
In Sydney, hundreds of citizens were taken in by family and friends, who became the first to arrive from abroad since April 2020 without a permit or the need to quarantine.
“(It’s) a little scary and exciting,” said Ethan Carter, who traveled from Los Angeles. “I came home to see my mom because she’s not feeling well.”
While travel is initially limited to a few states, Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families and New Zealand citizens, it portends a plan to reopen to international tourists and workers.
“We missed you guys”
Israel also relaxed travel rules on Monday, but tourists are required to read the finer details before booking.
“Welcome to Israel,” the government said in a tweet next to a large 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 passed since their last dose, with some exceptions.
This dampened the excitement among hoteliers.
“How many tourists in the world actually got boosters or were sitting in that six-month period after their second dose?” Yael Danieli, CEO of the Israel Hotel Association, said in the days leading up to the relaxation.
“Even if both parents in the family are vaccinated, their children under the age of 12 do not receive the vaccination, so they often cannot come to Israel.”
Tour group members are exempt from the six-month rule but will have to have PCR or antigen testing every 72 hours for the first two weeks of their stay.
Despite the relaxed restrictions, worldwide travel in full swing remains elusive.
China’s tourism sector suffers from zero tolerance in the country for Covid-19 as infected cities, or even with concerns about contagion, closures of entertainment venues, travel restrictions or delays of cultural events.
Shanghai Disneyland stopped receiving visitors on Monday.
Eastern Europe is grappling with the worst outbreak of the pandemic since the pandemic began. Latvia, for example, has imposed a strict national lockdown until November 15.
The Russian capital introduced its strictest lockdown measures in more than a year last Thursday, as the daily number of cases and deaths nationwide hit new records.
But many Russians have decided that now is the ideal time to travel for an overseas holiday, with a sharp increase in bookings to destinations where the Russian Sputnik V vaccine is recognized or where Covid entry requirements are cheap and easy.
“Don’t petrify, but a beach vacation!” The travel company Orange Suntour announced on its website osttour.ru, which offers breaks in Cyprus, Egypt, Cuba and other places.
Rules aimed at moving South Korea toward “coexistence with Covid-19” came into effect on Monday, with a raft of restrictions easing and the introduction of vaccine passports in gyms, saunas and bars.
“The path back to everyday life, which we are taking the first step on today, is a path we have never taken,” Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said at an in-agency meeting on the COVID-19 virus.
Health Minister Hugo de Jonge, without elaborating, said the Netherlands will impose new coronavirus restrictions this week in a bid to curb the recent surge in infections.
Britain on Monday removed the last seven countries on its coronavirus “red list”, which requires newly arrived travelers to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine.
Cases have been increasing in Ireland, but no new lockdown measures or travel restrictions have been imposed so far.
The United States will lift international travel restrictions for vaccinated travelers on November 8.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett, Jimmy Freed, Rami Ayoub, Gil Gralow, Jiraporn Kohkan, Oratay Sriring, and Arthurn Bokasuk; additional lines by Pól Ó Conghaile.