The woman in the photo is right being hugged by. A loved one is embraced by a woman, right, after she arrives on a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney Airport. This was as Australia opens its doors for international travel, with Sydney being the only airport. New South Wales boasts the highest level of vaccination.
AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Sydney’s international airport came alive with tears, embraces and laughter on Monday as Australia opened its border for the first time in 20 months, with some arriving travelers removing mandatory masks to see the faces of loved ones they’ve been separated from for so long.

Australia and other countries in the Asia-Pacific have had some of the world’s strictest COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures and travel restrictions, but with vaccination rates rising and cases falling, many are now starting to cautiously reopen.

Some countries, such as Japan and China, are still closed to visitors. However, Thailand opened its doors substantially Monday. Many others plan to do the same.

Traveler Carly Boyd seized the opportunity presented by the new Australian regulations to jump on the first flight home from New York to surprise her parents, whom she hadn’t seen in three years.

“Just being able to come home without having to go to quarantine is huge,” she told reporters at Sydney’s airport, where the country’s unofficial anthem “I Still Call Australia Home” was playing.

“There’s a lot of people on that flight who have loved ones who are about to die or have people who died this week, so for them to be able to get off the plane and go see them straight away is pretty amazing.”

Thailand was home to 20% of its economy prior to the pandemic. The lockdown in Thailand has resulted in massive job loss and hardship. Thailand’s government is hoping that foreign tourists will return and give it a boost.

Even though the surge in deaths caused by the Delta variant of the virus has now been stopped, there are still concerns that outsiders may cause new epidemics.

Issarapong Paingam, a Bangkok taxi driver, lost his mother due to COVID-19 in the surge. He said that it was more sensible for the government not to pay too much attention to foreign tourists and instead to reopen domestically.

“The government has not yet told the public what they would do if an outbreak takes place again,” the 34-year-old said. “I don’t understand why they don’t let people in the country live normally as a trial to see the trend (of COVID-19 cases) before welcoming tourists.”

Thailand allowed citizens to travel while the pandemic was raging, but required a two-week quarantine at hotels designated for the purpose.

Foreign arrivals plummeted from 40 million in 2019 to 6.69 million in 2020 — almost all in the first three months before the pandemic restrictions were introduced — to fewer than 100,000 so far in 2021.

Monday’s reopening builds on a pilot scheme launched in July on the resort island of Phuket, which allowed fully vaccinated travelers from selected countries to spend their quarantine moving around the island instead of in a hotel room.

Starting Monday, if travelers are fully vaccinated and from one of 63 countries and territories deemed “low risk” — which some cynical Thais have noted seem to be based more on spending power than coronavirus infections — they are exempt from quarantine. They need to spend one night at a designated hotel and can’t check out until they have a negative COVID-19 test, but then are free to travel.

Quarantine regulations apply to travelers from non-preferred countries or unvaccinated individuals.

In the destinations areas of interest, restrictions are being eased, such as widespread reopenings of shops and facilities like department stores, hospitals, tattoo shops and schools, and sports events.

With the combination of strict screening of visitors and higher vaccination rates in Thailand, Supat Hasuwannakit, president of Thailand’s Rural Doctor Society, said he is not concerned about foreign tourists sparking a new surge in cases.

He said that he was concerned about December’s planned reopenings of bars and nightclubs. This is despite the fact that the recent outbreaks in the country were caused by the government allowing people to meet for religious and other activities, such as weddings.

“Once people start to gather, eat and drink, it has a high possibility to create a new outbreak,” he said. “Most bars and nightclubs are indoors with bad airflow, so it is easy for COVID-19 to spread once they reopen.”

As with other countries within the region, rules requiring distancing and masks remain.

In India, which saw a peak of 400,000 daily cases in April and May, officials have been warning that people need to continue following such restrictions to avoid causing “super spreader” events during the holiday season as the country gradually reopens.

India started granting tourist visas to fully-vaccinated passengers arriving on charter flights on October 15th. They will also extend these visas to commercial travelers starting November 15.

Sri Lanka’s neighbor has allowed fully vaccinated visitors to travel without quarantines. Partially or completely unvaccinated individuals are subject to some restrictions. Similar programs are being implemented in South Korea. They have opened up more social events and removed operating hours restrictions for restaurants.

Vietnam’s popular resort island Phu Quoc is currently closed. However, plans are to open it to all travelers by the end this month. Cambodia on Monday removed restrictions on travel within its borders and has similar plans for opening up two other seaside regions to foreign tourists. Malaysia will open Langkawi, its northern resort island on Nov. 15, to full-vaccinated visitors.

Australia bets that international travel will not become a problem if vaccination rates remain high.

At first, only Australian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to enter. Foreigners who are fully vaccinated and have student or skilled worker visas will get priority over tourists from other countries.

However, the Australian government anticipates that Australia will receive international tourists in some way before the year is over.

Already, Australia announced Monday that vaccinated tourists from Singapore — which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world — will be welcome from Nov. 21 under a bilateral agreement.

These new freedoms allow fully-vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents to leave Australia for any reason, without needing to ask the government for an exemption form the travel ban that has kept most people at home since March 25, 2019.

Sydney, Australia’s first airport, announced it would reopen on Monday. New South Wales is the state in which 80% of its population has been fully immunized. After Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory had met the vaccine benchmark, Canberra and Melbourne opened their doors on Monday.

While Australians may now freely travel abroad, four Australian states as well as a territory still enforce pandemic bans on cross-border crossings.

Australian Ethen Carter, who landed at Sydney’s airport from Los Angeles on Monday, expressed his frustration at having to apply for permission to visit his dying mother in Western Australia state.

He tried to get in through the media to Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan to grant him entry. McGowan stated that this year’s state border wouldn’t open.

“Mark, think of the people that are suffering, like, mentally to see their family. That’s also a health issue,” Carter said. “And we know we’ve got to protect people’s lives, but you’ve got to bring families together again, you have to.”

McGowan stated that his government will consider permitting Carter into the country if Carter applies for an exception.

“These situations are very sad and very difficult and we’ve seen much of this over the course of the last two years,” McGowan said.

Report from Bangkok by ___ Rising This report was contributed by Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul, Tassaneevejpongsa and Ashok Sharma from Associated Press.


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