Taiwan on Wednesday introduced a “3+4” health regime for incoming travelers, shortening the quarantine to three days followed by four days of disease self-prevention, reallowed air travelers to transit in Taiwan and raised the inbound traveler cap to 25,000 per week.
However, a negative result from a polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 test conducted within 48 hours of boarding the flight or proof of recovery from the virus is still required, as well as on-arrival testing.
Asked whether Taiwan would reopen its borders to tourists by August, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) earlier this month said the opening might occur earlier, but did not elaborate.
Minister of Transportation and Communications Wang Kwo-tsai (王國材) said disease prevention guidelines are being drafted for inbound travelers, which would require tourists to have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, test negative within 48 hours of boarding the flight and, in the first stage of reopening, travel in a tour group.
Taiwan imposed strict border controls in early 2020, including an entry ban on most foreign visitors and a mandatory quarantine of 14 days, which was in the past few weeks eased to 10, seven and now three days. The shortening began after an outbreak of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 in April caused a sharp increase in domestic case numbers.
In 2019, 11.8 million international travelers visited Taiwan, including 7.5 million foreigners, but the numbers in 2020 dropped to 1.37 million and 1.09 million respectively. Last year, they dropped further to only 140,479 and 112,410 respectively, and the tourism industry took a hard hit.
However, the easing of entry restrictions has spurred mixed feelings among the public. Many Taiwanese who live abroad have anticipated returning home more often, and many Taiwan residents wish to travel abroad sooner, while others are worried about a resurgence of COVID-19 due to incoming travelers, possibly bringing new variants.
As of Friday, the Central Epidemic Command Center had reported 48 cases of Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 in travelers who arrived in Taiwan from 17 countries. It warned that the subvariants might be more contagious, and could bypass immunity gained from previous infection and vaccination.
Some experts have reassured the public that, based on the available data, there is no indication that the subvariants cause more severe illness than the currently circulating BA.2 subvariant, and that immunity from previous infection and vaccination still protects against courses of the disease that require hospitalization and might lead to death.
While the local COVID-19 infection rate remains high, to narrow the gap between the local infection risk and the infection risk from international travelers, the government must remain vigilant for indications of BA.4 and BA.5 spreading into local communities by improving its surveillance systems.
Many countries have lifted most COVID-19 curbs, including entry restrictions. Japan, which had strict border controls in place since 2020, last week reopened to tour groups.
The government should study the development of the pandemic in Japan and use its findings as a reference for its plan to carefully reopen to tourists in the near future. It should also pay close attention to the development of next-generation COVID-19 vaccines and purchase them if they are found to be safe and effective. Moreover, it should promote booster shots to older people, who are at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms, and to those who are at greater risk of infection, seeking to prepare Taiwan for future waves of the pandemic while carefully rolling back restrictions and encouraging people to live their lives as usual.
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