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 ways 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, regional capitals are divided on whether and how to welcome lucrative Chinese tourism and its 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 be carrying, are imposing specific measures on travelers from the mainland.
Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are declining to apply special measures against Chinese visitors.
The Northeast Asian democracies, all manufacturing powerhouses, rely less on tourism than their sunnier Southeast Asian counterparts. In recent years, however, Japan and South Korea have promoted inbound travel while Vietnam has become a rising force in high-technology manufacturing.
After three years of taking the zero-COVID approach, the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping relented last month in the face of growing public unrest and abandoned mass lockdowns and mass testing. Reports from the country suggest that the shift has ignited a dangerous spread of the coronavirus, with hospital ICUs and crematoriums running at capacity. In response, Beijing has curbed or canceled the release of updated numbers on COVID-19 cases and death rates.
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That lack of transparency sparked rare criticism from officials at the U.N. World Health Organization, who said they were “extremely concerned.” Others said China is lagging behind its regional neighbors, which have moved to gradual reopenings as COVID-19 rates fall.
“The world has gone through so much with COVID, so many lessons have been learned,” Jerome Kim, 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, the situation raises the risk of a mass export of COVID-19 from the world’s most populous country. Last week, Beijing announced that it would scrap quarantine restrictions for travelers and 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. China is by far the richest font of outbound tourists on the planet.
In 2019, the year before COVID-19 decimated travel, Chinese tourists spent $254.6 billion worldwide, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization.
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.
There is little time to prepare tourism and immigration systems for a Chinese influx. Although New Year’s Day is over, China’s – and the region’s – biggest holiday is imminent.
China’s Lunar New Year runs for eight days starting this year on Jan. 21. During the holiday in 2019, some 415 million Chinese traveled internally and 6.3 million traveled overseas. Some travel analysts said it was the world’s biggest annual migration.
It represents a potential windfall for regional tourism sectors, which badly need the business after two years of pandemic shutdowns.
When COVID-19 expanded from China in early 2020, global tourism shriveled. Tourism revenue in 2020 was $935 billion short of the 2019 figure, pushing the sector back to levels not seen in three decades, the UNWTO estimated.
The U.N. analysts found that the Asia-Pacific region was hit hardest after an 82% drop in tourism. Tourism in Europe and the Americas declined by 68%.
What are governments to do? Approaches vary.
South Korean airports this week reportedly experienced significant delays as authorities began administering COVID-19 tests for travelers arriving from China. Seoul announced the policy at the end of December. Even after taking the test, all arrivals from China must self-isolate for two days pending negative results. Those procedures do not apply to tourists from other nations.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo visited Incheon International Airport, where some travelers reported complaints.
On Friday, Japan mandated COVID-19 tests for all arrivals from China. It previously applied that policy only to those who showed signs of infection. Taiwan also announced that it would be testing all arrivals from mainland China starting on the first day of 2023.
Nations in Southeast Asia, many of whose economies are far more dependent on tourism as a percentage of gross domestic product, are 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 that it would not ban or test incoming Chinese.
Thailand anticipates some 5 million Chinese visitors this year.
Indonesian health authorities have not announced any specific steps for visitors from China.
Malaysia said it would not test Chinese travelers but would monitor toilet wastewater on aircraft arriving from Chinese airports for signs of the coronavirus.
The Philippines’ policy is unclear, but Manila has cited an urgent need for special monitoring of visitors from China.
Beijing has taken notice of special precautions in France, Italy, Israel, Australia, Canada and the U.S.
The state-controlled Global Times news website charged that these nations “see China’s reopening as another chance to defame Beijing” and “the U.S. propaganda machine is also running like crazy to smear China.”
Still, the Global Times acknowledged that Chinese caseloads have been “ballooning in the recent exit wave” and quoted a 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 a danger of successive waves of infection as Chinese domestic and international travel increases during the Lunar New Year.
The efficiency of China’s domestic COVID-19 vaccines poses another worry. Though the data is inconclusive, Mr. Kim noted reports that China’s two primary 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.