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As popular tourist spots across the Asia-Pacific reopen, locals are hopeful but cautious – ABC News


Popular tourist destinations across South-East Asia and the Pacific are beginning to reopen their borders to international visitors, with measures in place to try and minimise the risk of further outbreaks.

Thailand has already experimented by reopening its biggest island, Phuket, to overseas tourists as a “sandbox”, and Vietnam plans to follow suit allowing international visitors to the island of Phu Quoc, starting next month.

Places like Fiji and Indonesia have announced plans to reopen their borders to foreigners by November.

Meanwhile, following a devastating wave of infections that lasted more than two months, Indonesia has begun easing restrictions for local tourists on its most popular island, Bali, with an eye to welcoming international visits too.

A woman standing in a forest surrounded by trees.
Rezuwana Burrhan welcomes the return of tourists to Bali.(

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Balinese local Rezuwana Burrhan said seeing visitors had been refreshing after months of strict travel restrictions.

“At first, it was like a ghost town,” she said.

“But now it’s like everyone’s trying to make a life again, especially around the Kuta area.

Although Bali remains under some restrictions, popular tourist spots like Kuta Beach, Tanah Lot temple and Sangeh Monkey Forest are now open to locals.

To be granted entry, visitors must be fully vaccinated, and have their certificates stored in a digital app.

In some places, like the Tanah Lot temple, QR codes are being used to check whether people meet the requirements before they enter. 

Ms Burrhan said the new safety measures provided a sense of security to local communities.

“It’s still lockdown, but not as strict as before. Now the beach can open, and public places can operate almost as usual,” she said.

Ms Burrhan said she was excited, but cautious about further disruptions. 

Phu Quoc resort island is seen via the window of a plane
Phu Quoc island is expected to open for a trial period of six months.(

Reuters: James Pearson

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“Especially those who work in tourism, we want everything to be open,” she said.

“But we are afraid if we open those gates, another outbreak will come and it will be another one year or two years of the same situation.

“We need to eat, but we don’t want the coronavirus to stay here any longer than it needs to.”

Ni Luh Ekayani looks into the camera smiling.
Ni Luh Ekayani hopes that Indonesia’s new vaccination targets will make Bali lively again.(

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Ni Luh Ekayani, who goes by Caca, worked as a tour guide for French travellers in Bali before the pandemic.

She and her father both lost their livelihoods during the pandemic due to the lack of foreign tourists.

A mobile phone scanning a bar code
Those looking to visit Bali’s beaches and malls are now required to check in using a local app called ‘Peduli Lindungi’.(

Antara: Fikri Yusuf

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But with things returning to normal, Caca hoped she would be able to work in the tourism sector again.

Foreigners are expected to be allowed back in from November once 70 per cent of the local population has been vaccinated.

“I’m very happy, and I hope overseas tourists can come on vacation to Bali really soon.”

Thailand’s ‘sandbox’ model for international tourism

An empty beach shaded by palm trees
The vast majority of Phuket’s income is linked to tourism and it was lost when Thailand tightened its borders and enforced strict rules.(

ABC News: Mazoe Ford

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After a false start in July, the Phuket Sandbox Program is in full swing, emerging as a international tourism model for other countries in the region.

Under the scheme, overseas travellers must stay in Phuket for 14 days before being allowed to venture elsewhere in the country. 

They have to be fully vaccinated, test negative within 72 hours of their arrival into Phuket, and undertake three tests during their 14-day period in the “sandbox”.

The program attracted controversy days after its launch due to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, but it has been instrumental in reviving Thailand’s tourism industry.

“For 15 months we had no international tourists in Phuket at all — like anywhere in the world, it’s definitely been a challenge,” said Daniel Meury, the general manager of Andara Resort near Phuket’s Kamala Beach.

A man sitting on a floor with a dog next to him
Daniel Meury said the sandbox program has been a great way to restart international tourism.(

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“We had to let go of staff members. We had a much more reduced workforce.

“Now at least we have some guests, we have some income and that obviously helps the economy very much — thanks to the sandbox program.”

But despite the relief, it hasn’t been a quick fix. Hotels aren’t fully booked, and some are at 50 per cent capacity, he said. 

Given the risk of further outbreaks, Mr Meury said he appreciated the importance of reopening slowly.

“It’s a good way to start, because we are talking about big countries with lots of people, so you can’t just open the whole country,” he said.

“But to do it in a bubble like this, I think it works really well for everybody.”

The Thai government now plans to reopen the northern backpacker haven Chiang Mai and beach resorts Pattaya, Cha Am and Hua Hin to international visitors from October 1 under a similar model to Phuket’s.

Chiang Rai, Koh Chang and Koh Kood are expected to follow later that month with Bangkok to reopen in November. 

Further outbreaks a significant risk

Drone image of island and turquoise waters.
Tourism accounted for up to 40 per cent of Fiji’s GDP in 2019.(

Supplied: Royal Davui

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Tourism is a crucial industry for many South-East Asian economies.

In 2019, tourism accounted for over 20 per cent of Thailand’s GDP, 10 per cent of Vietnam’s, and more than 6 per cent of Indonesia’s.

In the Pacific, these figures were even higher.

Fiji’s tourism industry contributed nearly 40 per cent of its GDP in 2019, while in Vanuatu that figure sits at nearly 50 per cent.

Despite the economic benefits of opening, Australian National University infectious disease specialist Sanjaya Senanayake warned there were dangers.

“When you open up your borders, you are going to be letting people with COVID into the country,” he said, pointing to the ongoing risk of larger outbreaks and subsequent strains on local health sectors.

But he acknowledged the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the livelihoods of those living in countries that depend on tourism.

“You have to be pragmatic. In developing nations [it’s a fine] balance between having public health processes in place, versus having the economy running,” he said.

“It’s going to be a combination of strategies in dealing with an influx of people coming in from overseas.”

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