Vietnam resumes int'l tourism amid new COVID-19 peak

Tuesday seems to be a big day for Nguyen Hai Phong, a 34-year-old international tour guide in Hanoi. He is excited to resume work at a travel company after nearly two years of "frozen career" due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the Vietnamese government decided to fully open borders to international visitors from March 15, which rekindled hopes for millions of people in the service sector, including tour guides like Phong.

"I can't wait to see my customers, the foreign visitors, again," Phong told Xinhua, recalling the beautiful days guiding the tourists through corners of his city, telling them about the unique cultural features and introducing to them the must-try street food.

In March 2020, the Southeast Asian country was forced to close its borders and ground all international flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-COVID-19 measures, including social distancing, forced tourism businesses and personnel to spend their last two years essentially on ice.

Tran Thu Huyen, the founder of a travel agency based in Hanoi's Long Bien district, spent the last few days recruiting employees and getting ready for the normal operation of her business.

"It's the proper timing for reopening international tourism in Vietnam," Huyen said, noting that the country would host the 31st Southeast Asian Games in May, which will help "attract more visitors to the country, particularly those from ASEAN nations participating in the region's largest sporting event."

However, the service provider is worried that Vietnam may lose its attractiveness as a destination if detailed guidance on entry fails to come out soon, especially when other regional countries have already been working very actively to welcome back international travelers.

At a press briefing held Tuesday to announce the border reopening, general director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism Nguyen Trung Khanh said all foreigners can now enter Vietnam by air, road, sea routes and railway at all border gates as long as they meet the COVID-19 prevention and control requirements.

Prior to this policy, foreign tourists could only travel to Vietnam by air after booking a tour package with a designated travel agency under the trial vaccine passport program. Despite being offered a quarantine waiver, foreign tourists were restricted to visit just a few localities under heavily monitored conditions for COVID-19 prevention and control purpose.

On Monday, the Vietnamese government ordered its health ministry to ease entry requirements for foreign tourists, which aims to exempt them from most travel restrictions as per a proposal submitted in February.

Under the drafted plan, international tourists will only have to prove that they have been fully vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, and show a negative test result as per requirements by local health authorities. They are also required to have insurance coverage of at least 10,000 U.S. dollars for possible COVID-19 treatment in Vietnam.

As part of the efforts, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said that from Tuesday, immigration procedures for foreigners will be restored like before the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has also resumed the visa exemption policy for citizens from 13 nations including Japan, South Korea, and Russia from the same day.

Vietnam received a record number of over 18 million international arrivals in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from its General Statistics Office. In 2020 and 2021, the number of international arrivals to Vietnam respectively plunged 78.7 percent and 95.9 percent, mainly due to impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to an urgent need for reviving the tourism sector, a vital part of the Vietnamese economy, high vaccination coverage is believed to back the government's decision for reopening.

As of Tuesday, the country had administered over 200.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for a population of about 98 million, with 183.5 million shots on people aged 18 and above, according to official data. Most of the 63 localities nationwide had completed inoculating the primary two doses for the adult group, while being urged to accelerate the third doses as a booster.

However, a new round of infections triggered by the fast-spreading Omicron variant is challenging Vietnam's ambitious plan.

In the past week, the Southeast Asian country logged nearly 166,700 COVID-19 cases per day on average, up 24 percent compared to the previous week. The total COVID-19 tally has doubled in just over two weeks, reaching 6,552,918 cases on Tuesday.

According to Vietnamese health authorities, the recent infection hike is mainly due to the spread of the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, which has been detected in most of the analyzed samples across the country.

"It's quite worrisome. Foreign travelers will not favor a destination where the pandemic situation remains complicated," Huyen expressed her concerns, hoping that the infection wave will subside in the next few days. 

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