More than two years after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, most countries are working on going back to ‘business as usual’. Opening-up plans include lifting controls on foreign travel. The decisions to do so will have major implications for external perceptions of the Asia-Pacific region. Harsh border measures have made the region a complete contrast to the easy mobility of people it used to offer once.
International travelers have been among the hardest hit by Covid-19. From March/April 2020, countries began closing borders. The decisions were taken abruptly without giving millions across the world the opportunity to change travel plans. Chaos around travel marked the beginning of a phase where families stayed separated across borders for several months. For regular international travelers, the costs of the pandemic have been enormous. Those who have been able to travel amid the complex web of restrictions, such as overseas students, have had to incur exorbitant airfares. The travel costs have been compounded by medical insurance, hotel quarantine and countless RT-PCR tests—before and after flights. The monetary costs have been inflated by human ‘costs’—anxieties on whether the travel would go as scheduled, worries over being quarantined at foreign locations, and the uncertainty over when the return journey can be undertaken.
It is remarkable to note how countries with reputations of having seamless borders took to shutting borders and staying shut for almost two years. Asia-Pacific provides some of the best examples. Indeed, even vaccines don’t appear to have given countries in the region enough confidence in dispensing with border controls. And it doesn’t seem like boosters would.
Australia closed borders from March 2020. It brought in limited relaxations late last year. Border controls are finally to be lifted from February 21, 2022. It is not yet known whether Western Australia, which hasn’t been allowing even visitors from other parts of Australia, will open up. Indonesia, which was looking to relax some border controls, stopped foreign arrivals in Jakarta, following the Omicron surge. After nearly two years of punishing controls, Malaysia has finally announced doing away with border controls from March 1. It would be preceded by Vietnam, which has just allowed international flights and travelers. Foreign travelers to Japan are still banned though there are indications of an opening up being just around the corner. China, Hong Kong and New Zealand are common in their astonishingly hard border control strategies. China and Hong Kong are working on ostensible ‘Zero-Covid’ policies. These, according to both, don’t allow room for international travel. New Zealand, on the other hand, notwithstanding plans to co-exist with Covid, has decided to stay shut for foreign travelers till October 2022.
Miseries of international travelers apart, there are some major long-term implications of the Asia-Pacific region having stayed shut for this long. The first of this is on the prospects for tourism.
It will take a long time before tourist operators, and travelers, revive their faith in Asia-Pacific tourist destinations. Sea cruises have become nightmares with people not having been allowed to disembark for several days. Most of the regional countries, notwithstanding removing border controls, are likely to retain pre-departure and post-arrival testing protocols, along with isolation requirements, upon being tested positive. There is no way tourism will revive under these circumstances.
The beneficiaries of Asia-Pacific’s heavy border measures have been countries on the other side of the world. The Emirates, particularly Dubai, has been experiencing a boom in tourism. Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, has similarly been a great success story. Indeed, Maldives has been the only bright spot in South Asia’s regional tourist landscape, while all other countries continue to restrict tourists. Europe, which has weathered the Omicron storm with limited fuss and panic, is welcoming back tourists. The UK has become an example for countries in their plans to open up as it has done away with all border restrictions and testing protocols. The US has remained remarkably nonchalant during the Omicron surge and allowed international travel without additional hiccups.
The second major impact of Asia-Pacific’s border measures is on movement of students. Regional student hubs—Australia, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand—are all set to lose out on potential students. Ostensible beneficiaries in this regard have been the UK, Canada and the UAE. It will be a long time before Asia-Pacific comes back as a prominent choice for students migrating outward, from South Asia, and even within the Asia-Pacific itself.
The third, and probably the most lasting impact, is on regional and national images. Asia-Pacific, over the years, cultivated the image of a benign, welcoming region, heavily receptive of foreigners, particularly tourists and students. The harsh border measures, many of which were disproportionately severe for foreigners, have hit this image hard. Those that have suffered hardships following the border closures have their faiths in the region badly dented. Covid-19 was bad enough for the region by snatching livelihoods from many communities. The actual costs would be much higher if those from border controls are factored in.
The author is Senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economics), Institute of South Asian Studies, NUS Views are personal