Travel restrictions are relaxed in parts of Asia, bringing prospects for tourist arrivals, reboots for local economies and easier logistics for filmmakers and executives. But Hong Kong, once a hub for East Asian cinema, tightened border controls on Monday, a day the territory recorded just one new (imported) infection.
Also on Monday, Thailand and Australia both rolled back strict border restrictions that have been in place for about 18 months to defend against COVID-19. Singapore and Malaysia moved in the same direction in the middle of last month. In each case, conditions apply. This means that open and fluid borders are not an immediate prospect.
Australia, which has heavily blocked many of its own citizens on board, now allows Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, as well as New Zealand nationals to travel without a permit and quarantine. Singaporeans will also be allowed access from November 21. Tourists and foreign workers will have to wait a little longer.
Thailand’s reopening applies to visitors from 60 territories, including China and the United States, but only if they are fully vaccinated. Thai paperwork remains a curse, as a new form of special entry permit has replaced an expensive temporary permit, and it applies in addition to all visa requirements.
Within the country, the policy depends on the city or district of arrival. In some areas, curfews remain in effect and bars and restaurants are not allowed to serve alcohol. In Phuket, visitors can take their PCR test at the airport and then receive the results at their hotels. But in Bangkok, people have to wait for the results to be taken in a designated quarantine location.
Movements in all four locations reflect significant policy changes on the part of governments, which are beginning to view COVID-19 as an endemic disease, more like the flu or measles, rather than a pandemic. In this, they follow the lead of the United States and much of Western Europe.
Government decisions are aided by improving immunization levels in Asia. If you don’t stop the disease, it makes it much less fatal – despite the delta variant.
Singapore, now home to the headquarters of much of the Asia-Pacific television industry, is reopening despite levels of new infections that would have horrified authorities a year ago. It recorded 3,163 cases on Sunday, up from an all-time high of more than 5,000 recorded last week. But the country has also achieved an 84% vaccination rate, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Thailand, which initially opted for a policy of tight borders and a locally produced vaccine, pivoted in March. It has now reached 44% inoculation, but with a large proportion involving the less effective Sinovac product. This means that visitors who are fully vaccinated are more at risk of catching the disease from the Thai population than locals from incoming tourists.
Korea and Japan have yet to open their borders, but in both cases there are similar life changes with COVID. Some cinemas in Korea started operating at 100% capacity from Monday, but only for customers who can prove their fully immunized status.
Japan eased restrictions on large gatherings such as sporting events and music concerts on Monday. Large venues can now accommodate 5,000 spectators or 50% of their capacity, whichever is greater.
The easing of policy comes too late for the recent Busan Film Festival or the Tokyo festival, which kicked off on Saturday. At these two top festivals, screenings take place in person, but the number of foreign visitors is only double digits, up from hundreds in the pre-pandemic years.
Hong Kong finds itself in a well-documented political dilemma. It has high levels of vaccination and there has been only one local infection since mid-August, but quarantine restrictions are being tightened rather than relaxed. Last week, the city increased quarantine times for recovered patients. On Monday, it rolled back almost all exceptions to its already strict quarantine regime, which lasts 21 days at government-mandated facilities at the visitor’s expense. Nicole Kidman, who was controversially allowed entry without quarantine to shoot a series on Amazon in August, would not be welcome under the latest rules.
Indeed, the Hong Kong government is desperate to reopen its border with mainland China, but Chinese officials have told it the policies are not strict enough. Allowing open access for visitors from other countries to Hong Kong would represent a flaw in China’s zero COVID strategy, which many say will continue until after the Communist Party convention in November 2022.
Local and international business groups in Hong Kong recently warned the city that the unscientific and draconian health regime means Hong Kong risks losing its status as a commercial and financial hub. The government responded by saying that relations with the continent are simply more important.
The intransigent attitudes could further endanger Hong Kong’s position in the film industry, just as they have hurt its position for the news media and NGOs. Human rights group Amnesty International announced last week that it would close its Asian local and regional offices in Hong Kong due to the impact of a sweeping national security law introduced by Beijing in July of the last year. A censorship law also approved last week will allow Hong Kong to ban films on political grounds.
If the city keeps its borders closed during the first quarter of next year, Asia’s main film sales market, FilMart, which is normally held in March, could become an online-only event for the third time in a row. .
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