Asia will embark on an ultra-cautious return to international travel when about 440 Japanese businesspeople will take “exceptional” flights to Vietnam over the next three days.
According to officials involved in the negotiations, countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are struggling to agree on broader rules for travel as they try to protect the advances they made in controlling coronavirus.
Asia’s caution is in sharp contrast to Europe, where Covid-19 infection levels are much higher. European governments are seeking to restart not just business but also tourist travel before the summer holiday season.
The divergent approaches could ultimately make it hard to open travel between Europe and Asia and leave the world divided into regions where the virus is prevalent and those where it is not.
“These will be the first flights since we agreed to a partial and staged relaxation of the travel restrictions [between Japan and Vietnam],” said Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister.
Officials involved in negotiating “travel bubbles” between countries with few or no Covid-19 cases said a broader agreement may still be weeks away.
Sticking points include the fear of importing new cases, the impact on virus testing capacity and how to ratchet up travel restrictions again if there are further outbreaks.
A second wave of Covid-19 infections is delaying progress on a “Trans-Tasman travel bubble” between Australia and New Zealand. Both nations have enjoyed success in suppressing the virus but new outbreaks in Melbourne and New Zealand have caused a rethink.
On Wednesday the premier of Victoria called in the military to help deal with a Covid-19 outbreak in several Melbourne suburbs, which has led to more than 100 new infections over the past week. That prompted several Australian states to delay reopening their internal borders or to advise their citizens against travel to Victoria.
“The New Zealand authorities would certainly be concerned about that and they would be watching that,” said Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief medical officer, this week when asked about the progress of talks. New Zealand and Australia are unlikely to restart travel to other countries before opening up a transport bubble across the Tasman Sea.
Thailand has not suffered any new local infection in almost a month other than a trickle of people arriving on repatriation flights from abroad, while there have been no new cases in Vietnam in more than two months. Both countries have lifted most lockdown restrictions, and are keen to get their export- and tourism-reliant economies going again.
Japanese multinationals are the largest group of foreign investors in Thailand. However, Japan is still reporting 40-60 new Covid-19 cases every day, highlighting the risks of opening up borders. Asian countries have imposed some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions with near-total entry bans.
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Thailand and Japan have been talking about allowing business travellers to move between the two countries in “limited numbers”, a senior Thai government official told the Financial Times, who wished to remain anonymous.
“It won’t be opened up widely for many people; maybe we will start with 50 a day or 100 a day,” the official said. “At our end we are still concerned about unrestricted numbers of people coming in,” the official said.
Travellers in Asia will need a clean Covid-19 test before they fly with another test taken on arrival, according to Japanese guidelines. Depending on the country, they might also have to file a detailed itinerary of their intended movements and download a tracking application to their mobile phone.