CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Sydney International Airport came alive with tears, hugs 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 their loved ones. been separated for so long.

Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries have put in place some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, but with rising rates of vaccination and declining cases, many are now starting to reopen cautiously.

Some, like China and Japan, remain largely closed to foreign visitors, but Thailand also began to reopen substantially on Monday and many more have already started, or are planning to do the same.

Traveler Carly Boyd took the opportunity offered by new Australian regulations to jump on the first flight back from New York to surprise her parents, whom she had not seen for three years.

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

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

In Thailand, a country where tourism made up about 20% of the economy before the pandemic, the lockdown has caused massive job losses and hardship, and the government is hoping the return of foreign visitors will give a good boost. necessary.

Yet, just months away from a wave fueled by the delta variant of the virus that has seen the number of deaths rise dramatically, many Thais are still concerned that an influx of foreigners could trigger new epidemics.

Bangkok taxi driver Issarapong Paingam lost his mother to COVID-19 in the recent wave, and said it would make more sense for him for the government to focus fully on reopening nationwide before to introduce foreign travelers into the mix.

“The government has yet to tell the public what it will do if an epidemic recurs,” said the 34-year-old. “I don’t understand why they don’t let people in the country live normally as a try to see the trend (of COVID-19 cases) before welcoming tourists.”

Thailand has allowed residents to travel during the pandemic, but has imposed a strict two-week quarantine in specially designated hotels for people entering the country.

Foreign arrivals have fallen from 40 million in 2019 to 6.69 million in 2020 – almost all in the first three months before the introduction of pandemic restrictions – to less than 100,000 so far in 2021.

Monday’s reopening builds on a pilot program 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 rather than in a bedroom. ‘hotel.

As of Monday, if travelers are fully vaccinated and come from any of the 63 countries and territories considered “low risk” – what some cynical Thais have noted appears to be based more on purchasing power than coronavirus infections – they are exempt from quarantine. They must stay overnight at a designated hotel and cannot leave until they test negative for COVID-19, but are then free to travel.

Travelers from countries not on the Preferred List or those who are not vaccinated are still subject to various quarantine rules.

Restrictions are also relaxed in destination areas, including the widespread reopening of businesses and other facilities such as department stores, spas, tattoo parlors, schools and sporting events.

With the combination of tight visitor control and higher vaccination rates in Thailand, Supat Hasuwannakit, president of the Rural Doctor Society of Thailand, said he is not worried that foreign tourists will trigger a further increase in case.

But he said he was concerned about the planned reopening of bars and clubs in December, noting that the recent national outbreaks came after the government allowed people to gather for activities such as church services and weddings.

“Once people start to gather, eat and drink, there is a strong possibility of creating a new epidemic,” he said. “Most bars and nightclubs are indoors with poor air circulation, so it’s easy for COVID-19 to spread once they reopen. “

Rules requiring masks and distancing remain in place, as do other countries in the region that have started to reopen.

In India, which saw a peak of 400,000 daily cases in April and May, authorities warned people must continue to follow these restrictions to avoid causing “super-spraying” events during the holiday season as the country is gradually reopening.

India began granting tourist visas on October 15 to fully vaccinated people arriving on charter flights, and will extend them to tourists on commercial flights from November 15.

Neighboring Sri Lanka has already started allowing fully vaccinated travelers without quarantine, and partially or unvaccinated people with certain restrictions. South Korea, which on Monday began allowing larger social gatherings and lifted restrictions on restaurant opening hours, has a similar program.

Vietnam is still closed but plans to open the popular resort island of Phu Quoc to fully vaccinated vacationers by the end of the month, and neighboring Cambodia, which lifted domestic travel restrictions on Monday, has a plan. similar to open two seaside provinces to international travelers. Malaysia intends to open its northern resort island of Langkawi on November 15 to fully vaccinated tourists.

Australia is betting that vaccination rates are now high enough to lessen the danger of allowing international travel.

Initially, only permanent residents and Australian citizens will be free to enter the country. Fully vaccinated foreigners traveling on skilled worker and student visas will have priority over international tourists.

But the government expects Australia to welcome international tourists again to some extent before the end of the year.

Already, Australia announced Monday that vaccinated tourists from Singapore – which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world – will be welcome from November 21 as part of a bilateral deal.

The new freedoms also mean permanent residents and fully vaccinated Australian citizens can leave the country for any reason without asking the government for an exemption from a travel ban that has imprisoned the most at home since March 25, 2020.

Sydney was the first Australian airport to announce its reopening on Monday as New South Wales was the first state where 80% of the population aged 16 and over has been fully vaccinated. Melbourne and the nation’s capital Canberra also opened on Monday after the state of Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory hit the vaccination threshold.

Even though Australians are now free to travel abroad, four Australian states and one territory still maintain pandemic restrictions on crossing state borders.

Australian Ethen Carter, who landed at Sydney Airport from Los Angeles on Monday, expressed frustration at having to seek permission to visit her dying mother in Western Australia state.

He pleaded through the media to Western Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan, who has said the state border will not open this year, to let him in.

“Mark, think about people who are in pain, like, mentally, seeing their families. It’s a health issue too,” Carter said. “And we know we have to protect people’s lives, but you have to come together to new families, you have to do it. “

McGowan said his government would consider allowing Carter to enter the state if he applied for an exemption.

“These situations are very sad and very difficult and we’ve seen a lot of them over the past two years,” said McGowan.

——— Increase reported from Bangkok. Associated Press journalists Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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