In one of the biggest and boldest experiments under way to climb out of coronavirus cloistering, European governments have begun reopening their borders after 15 weeks of closure. Two weeks after the European Union relaxed travel between member states, it is now letting in visitors from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and eight other nations. Chinese travellers will be allowed if Beijing reciprocates. The shortlisted nations are ones where the number of new cases over a 14-day period was close to or below the EU average. Excluded for now are visitors from elsewhere, including the United States, Brazil, Russia and India, the countries with the highest number of confirmed cases in the world. A reopening is also on the cards in Britain which has drawn up a list of 75 overseas destinations from where visitors can enter without the obligatory 14-day quarantine.
The push is driven by Europe's urgency to recover what it can of its retreating summer tourist season and boost the sector that accounts for at least 10 per cent of its economic activity. Globally, tourist arrivals this year could fall by 80 per cent or by 800 million people. This puts 120 million jobs at risk and costs around US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) in forgone exports. In the allied aviation industry, losses are as crushing. As air travel came to a halt, airlines have lost an average of US$230 million every day this year and expect to post losses of more than US$80 billion by the year end.
In the Asia-Pacific, the approach towards restarting travel and tourism has been more cautious and calibrated. A number of "travel bubbles" are functional or in the works, including Singapore's "green lane" for essential business or official trips to and from six provinces in China. Reopening travel to Malaysia is also under discussion. Thailand, where spending by tourists accounts for over 10 per cent of its GDP, has outlined plans for gradually opening up to investors and medical tourists. South Korea, Japan and Vietnam are sewing up arrangements for limited international flights. Australia, on the other hand, does not envisage opening its borders until next year.
Re-injecting confidence in travel, however, will need more than lifting border curbs or quarantine requirements. Foremost, a traveller needs reassurance that he will not be infected or infect others in his travel. Technology can help. Touchless travel being set up at Changi Airport will use facial and iris recognition, instead of fingerprint scanning, for immigration clearance. Check-ins and baggage drops will be possible without touching machines. Other travel essentials require international coordination such as tracing apps that work across borders. Even so, new outbreaks as a result of travel cannot be ruled out. Europe's experiment, therefore, bears watching while the region continues with a restrained reopening.