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It's Time to Rethink Global Travel Restrictions

By Denis Hew Singapore | 22 September 2021

For many economies in the Asia-Pacific region, containing the highly infectious Delta COVID-19 variant has proven to be very challenging despite stringent border restrictions and active contact tracing.

The region's vital tourism sector continues to struggle for survival with knock-on impacts on the transport, retail, and food & beverage sectors.

Travel in the now-extended COVID-19 era has been chaotic. To protect people from infection, governments all over the world have put up bans, rules and restrictions, few of which are aligned across economies. Even essential travel in 2020 and 2021 has become more cumbersome and, consequently, more exclusive, than it has been in decades.

Who are allowed to embark on essential travel, then? That depends on where you are headed or where you are from. Most economies consider only residents, citizens and their families exempt from bans. Other governments have made it easy to get a permit if you are a high-powered businessperson or trader, but somehow seafarers and air crew who enable the movement of essential goods and supplies often do not make the cut.

Even border health measures are not consistent. Depending on the port, screenings may take the form of a polymerase chain reaction, an antigen rapid test or a serology antibody test.

Read: “Passports, Tickets and Face Masks: COVID-19 and Cross-Border Mobility in the APEC Region,” by the APEC Policy Support Unit, for a summary of analysis of travel rules and exceptions in the APEC region.

Not every economy requires testing. Some give travelers a choice between testing or quarantine; some require only testing; others require a combination of tests and quarantines.

The timing of the tests is far from uniform. You might be required to take it 72 hours prior to boarding, sometimes right before boarding, sometimes upon arrival, sometimes a combination of the above.

All this does not augur well for travel and tourism's swift return, which would be bad news for many.

Before the pandemic, nonresident arrivals in the Asia-Pacific region had been growing around 4 percent a year, reaching 544 million arrivals in 2019.


Most of this volume was made up of tourists, but it also brought business and investment, workers, migrants and students, refugees and asylum seekers, and conventioneers such as those of us who attend APEC meetings, all of which has a positive correlation with trade, economic growth and cultural exchange.

There are consequences to losing this. Once border restrictions were put in place in 2020, these arrivals fell by 75 percent. It has cost the Asia-Pacific region an estimated US$500 billion to US$800 billion in lost trade and around US$1.2 trillion in lost economic output.

It was once easy to justify such a high price in thinking that blocked travel indeed protects populations from infection.

But recent data from multiple sources, including published epidemiological studies, paint a different picture.

Between January 2020 and April 2021, COVID-19 cases have spiked regardless of the stringency of new travel measures.

While the timing of bans and border measures do count for something, it turns out at-the-border measures are only effective if behind-the-border pandemic control measures are already in place.

What does this information mean for someone thinking about COVID-19 policy? For one thing, "no one is safe until everyone is safe" has gone from a statement of fact to an urgent call to action. Isolation, at best, bought some time, but the economic losses were immediate, not to mention impacts on families torn and opportunities lost.

Unless widespread and equitable vaccination, therapeutics, and testing is put front and center, every piecemeal safe bubble will soon and inevitably be popped by the next wave of infection or mutation.

Furthermore, our instinctive reaction to act unilaterally in the face of an unknown threat is not necessary anymore.

More than 20 months into the pandemic, we know more about the virus and we now have the vaccines and therapeutics to manage it. We know what works and what does not in controlling the pandemic. We are now in a better position to harmonize our cross-border policies than when we first shut them.

The morass of conflicting and contradicting COVID-19 regulations at our borders can no longer be excused as teething pains.

It will take behind-the-border policy cooperation to ensure quick and equitable access to vaccines and therapeutics; and at-the-border policy coordination to harmonize policies and recognition of health certificates.


Utilizing digital technology to facilitate safe entry would be welcome. These will not only reopen travel, but also facilitate trade by enabling the movement of essential workers like seafarers and air crew.

APEC is in a unique position to contribute here. It has various groups focused on trade, standards, the digital economy, public health, business mobility, tourism, transportation and others, all of which can be brought to bear on this issue.

Its informal and voluntary culture allows it to have frank discussions and nimble processes that promote the incubation of ideas.

This is the moment Apec can show that its brand of innovative and multi-sectoral regional cooperation can produce concrete and tangible results.


Dr Hew is the director of the APEC Policy Support Unit.

A version of this article was originally published by The Business Times.

For more on this topic, download Passports, Tickets and Face Masks: COVID-19 and Cross-Border Mobility in the APEC Region,” by the APEC Policy Support Unit.

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