The islands of Southeast Asia are reopening to visitors — one small step at a time.
The region is home to countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, that kept Covid rates low throughout 2020.
That changed with the arrival of the delta variant, which forced many Southeast Asian nations to contend with big outbreaks for the first time.
Plans to reopen popular hotspots such as Phuket and Bali were put on hold. Singapore, too, recorded a spike in cases and kept its borders largely sealed to tourists.
Many Southeast nations are cautiously opening to travelers. One appears to be throwing its doors wide open.
Thailand pioneered Southeast Asia's tourism reopening on July 1 with its first-of-a-kind "sandbox" scheme.
Under the plan, vaccinated travelers who test negative for Covid-19 before and after arriving can enter Phuket without quarantining. The island welcomed 26,400 vaccinated visitors and generated tourism revenue of 1.63 billion Thai baht ($48.5 million) in July and August, according to a report by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Now vaccinated travelers can visit other parts of Thailand, including the island of Koh Samui and parts of the provinces of Krabi and Phang-Nga.
On Monday, Thai authorities announced plans to open a large swath of the country in the next three months. Authorities approved a four-phase reopening timeline that prioritizes popular tourist destinations, including Bangkok.
Thailand's reopening plans
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With tourism representing 18% of its GDP, Thailand has been under immense pressure to reopen its borders to foreign tourists.
The country saw an 83% decline in tourists between 2019 and 2020 and lost an estimated $13.54 billion in potential tourism earnings in 2020 — the most of any country — according to a report by travel company Next Vacay.
The Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc (pronounced "foo kwok") is scheduled to reopen to vaccinated international visitors in October, according to VGP News, the Vietnamese government's online newspaper.
The island, Vietnam's largest, is lesser known than other Southeast Asian islands, which is one reason travelers are attracted to it. Home to white-sand beaches and night markets, Phu Quoc has a UNESCO recognized biosphere reserve and one of the world's longest cable cars, which links to the nearby island of Hon Tham (Pineapple Island).
Phu Quoc is scheduled to open in phases. In the first three months, the island is targeting 2,000 to 3,000 visitors per month, according to the Vietnamese authorities. These visitors can arrive via charter jets and visit a limited number of places on the island.
During the second phase, which is also set to last three months, some 5,000 to 10,000 visitors can enter via commercial flights and experience more of the island, according to the news report.
Vietnam is expected to welcome "visitors from markets with high tourism potential and epidemic safety … such as Northeast Asia, Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East," according to the article.
Singapore welcomed flights filled with European tourists this month, its first in roughly 1 1/2 years.
Under Vaccinated Travel Lanes, vaccinated travelers from Germany and Brunei can visit Singapore without quarantining if they pass four Covid-19 tests.
If the program works well, Singapore plans to open travel lanes to other countries, according to Singapore authorities.
Travelers from select parts of Asia can also enter Singapore regardless of their vaccination status if they apply for an Air Travel Pass. Currently, this scheme is open to travelers from Hong Kong, Macao, mainland China and Taiwan.
After being postponed several times, plans for a travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong ended last month. The two governments decided to drop pursuing the travel bubble due to differences in their anti-Covid strategies.
Southeast Asia's largest and most populous country is taking steps to welcome visitors soon.
The islands of Bali, Bintan and Batam are part of a reopening pilot project, thanks to their vaccination rates, safety protocols, health infrastructure and international demand, a representative from Indonesia's Ministry of Tourism told CNBC.
However, a reopening date has yet to be announced, the representative said.
Bali's reopening has been postponed several times this year due to infection outbreaks on the island. As of Sept. 17, Bali was on track to open in October, according to the representative.
Not everyone, however, will be able to enter when the island reopens.
"As for now, only countries with a high level of Covid-19 containment are considered, such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore and New Zealand," said the ministry's spokesperson. "Australia most likely will be put into consideration once it already achieved 80% vaccination rate."
Langkawi reopened this month as part of Malaysia's Tourism Recovery Plan. However, the archipelago located 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Malaysia's northwestern coast is open only to vaccinated domestic tourists.
The government indicated it expects to welcome domestic visitors to other popular tourist destinations such as Tioman Island, Johor, Melaka and the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
International travelers will be welcome at phase 4 of the plan, according to Malaysia's tourism authority.
Langkawi is a popular resort destination for regional tourists and is known for its beaches, rainforests and abundant wildlife.
Malaysia has experienced a significant drop in tourism revenue due to pandemic-related restrictions. The country saw $9.08 billion taken off its annual earnings last year and gave up 83.4% of its 2019 visitor total — the third-highest of all countries, according to Next Vacay.
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