The Philippines yesterday announced its full opening to vaccinated foreign travelers, after a nearly two-year ban imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Associated Press, vaccinated foreign travelers from the 157 countries that have visa-free arrangements with the Philippines will now be able to visit the country without having to undergo a quarantine. The visitors will also be required to have tested negative for the virus prior to departure.
In announcing the move, Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat said that it marked the beginning of “the next chapter in the road to recovery,” and that it would deliver a much-needed restorative jolt to the country’s tourist sector and the communities that depend on it.
With yesterday’s decision, the Philippines has become the latest Southeast Asian nation to drop all border restrictions in a bid to restore battered tourism sectors and promote economic recovery. Indonesia opened the island of Bali to tourists from all nations on February 4, three days after Thailand resumed its “Test and Go” quarantine-free travel scheme, which had been placed on hold for a month due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The Thai government also announced earlier this week that it is considering the establishment of travel bubbles with Malaysia and China, two major sources of Asia tourist arrivals. Meanwhile, authorities in Malaysia have recommended that the country reopen its borders as early as March 1 without mandatory quarantine for travelers.
Somewhat strangely, these openings come at a time of increasing outbreak, driven in most cases by the highly infectious Omicron variant. Over the weekend, Indonesia recorded its highest daily caseloads in six months. Malaysia yesterday reported 17,134 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily figure in nearly five months, while Vietnamese authorities yesterday recorded nearly 24,000 cases, part of a wave whose peaks have exceeded those of late last year.
Meanwhile, Thailand yesterday lodged 14,822 new COVID-19 infections, the highest since September. This has prompted the authorities to warn that the Songkran water festival could be canceled for the third year running if daily caseloads exceed 30,000.
Indeed, the one outlier of the cases cited above is the Philippines. Just after the new year, the country experienced a wild outbreak in which daily caseloads exceeded the peaks of last year’s devastating Delta surge. However, in recent weeks the country’s curve of infections has come sharply down, reinforcing the evidence, gleaned from other countries including South Africa, that the Omicron variant spreads with lightning efficiency but then burns itself out rapidly. This likely explains the willingness of Southeast Asian governments, so cautious during the first two years of the pandemic, to roll the dice on full border openings while case numbers are still high.
As I wrote last week of Indonesia’s resumption of tourism in Bali, with luck, these reopenings could well mark “the beginning of the end for Southeast Asia’s great tourism recession” and provide nourishing respite to the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods rely on flows of international travelers to the region. But public hesitancy, fresh variants of COVID-19, and the continued flat-lining of tourism from China – where a “zero COVID” policy is holding back the largest source of tourists to many nations in the region – ensure that the recovery will take place one small step at a time.