After two years of lockdown and numerous Covid-19 variants, Southeast Asian governments are beginning to shift their policies from treating Covid-19 as pandemic to endemic.
Multiple governments, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, have announced timelines to ease pandemic restrictions, normalize life with Covid-19, and revive their economies.
Thailand is pushing to downgrade from pandemic status within three months after having some coronavirus travel restrictions lifted recently.
Pre-arrival PCR testing for visitors to Thailand was removed last week in an effort to boost tourism. Experts have warned, though, that a spike of infections and public fear could prevent a smooth transition into an endemic.
Thailand’s Ministry of Health said earlier this month the coronavirus pandemic in the country would be labeled as an endemic disease by July, promoting a return to “normal life.”
The conversation about reopening comes amid a surge of new cases driven by the Omicron variant, especially in Malaysia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. However, with 59 percent of the eligible population in Southeast Asia fully vaccinated, governments intend to balance reopening their economies with public health initiatives. Lockdowns played a crucial role in controlling the pandemic, but also stifled economic growth in 2021. Regional growth is expected to increase this year alongside the rise in vaccinations. The Asian Development Bank forecasts Southeast Asia’s economy to grow by 5.1 percent, and a portion of that growth hinges on the slow resurrection of the tourism industry.
The rates of reopening vary across the region with countries like Indonesia and Singapore taking a more cautious approach. With daily Covid-19 cases decreasing from last month’s peak, Indonesia plans to enter a deceleration phase until both national and global cases are low enough for the government to feel confident in declaring its plans to transition to treating Covid-19 as endemic. Indonesia is taking a pragmatic approach to tourism by carefully easing restrictions on its famous tourist hotspots and setting a modest goal to see 2 million visitors return in 2022.
Singapore is easing into reopening to international tourism beyond Southeast Asia. It has largely kept the Omicron wave under control and has seen Covid-19 cases begin to subside. By incrementally increasing the size of gatherings and countries with whom it has vaccinated travel lanes, Singapore is taking the safe route to opening its economy.
The Philippines and Malaysia are incentivizing more international travel by easing restrictions on entry requirements. Starting on April 1, the Philippines will allow travelers from 157 countries to enter without a visa and increase scheduled flights by over 50 percent. It had previously allowed vaccinated travelers to visit without quarantine from February 10. Although the Philippines has kept the outbreak under control, it has also struggled to maintain the momentum of its vaccination drive. Malaysia will allow all fully vaccinated foreign tourists to enter the country without quarantine requirements in April. Its transition includes a second National Recovery Plan that will focus on addressing some areas of the economy that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, including tourism, education, and small and medium-sized enterprises. With national elections on the horizon, stabilizing Covid-19 cases will become a greater priority for both Manila and Kuala Lumpur.
Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are forging ahead with the resumption of pre-pandemic activities. As one of the first countries to welcome back international tourists with its “sandbox” and “Test & Go” programs, Thailand placed tourism at the forefront of its recovery scheme. Thailand has already reopened its borders for quarantine-free travel from February 1 and has unveiled four specific steps to label Covid-19 as an endemic disease by July 2022
Similarly, Vietnam has been pushing forward on its plans to reopen by ending quarantine requirements for international travelers this week amid skyrocketing Covid-19 cases and low hospitalization rates in the country. It plans to restore flights to major tourism markets by July, including Japan and China. With a vaccination rate of 92 percent, Cambodia welcomed back international travelers starting in November 2021 and in January 2022 launched its “Cambodia: Safe and Green Tourism Destination” campaign to encourage travelers to return.
Despite numerous plans to revive tourism in the region, there is still uncertainty regarding the future of travel. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing a surge in oil prices and inflation, which could negatively impact tourism numbers. The shortage of Russian travelers will also continue to dampen tourism rates for Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia’s Bali, frequent destinations for Russian visitors. Regardless of the rate of recovery, the easing of border restrictions in Southeast Asia opens the door for more bilateral and multilateral cooperation on post-pandemic recovery for all parties involved.