Though Travel Restrictions Ease in Parts of Asia, Tightened Measures in Hong Kong Could Put Local Film Industry at Risk

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Travel restrictions are being eased in parts of Asia, bringing the prospects of tourist arrivals, restarts for local economies and easier logistics for filmmakers and executives. But Hong Kong, once the hub of East Asian filmmaking, tightened its border controls on Monday, a day in which the territory recorded just one new (imported) coronavirus infection.

Also on Monday, Thailand and Australia both rolled back strict border restrictions which have been in place for some 18 months as a defense against COVID-19. Singapore and Malaysia moved in the same direction in the middle of last month. In each case, conditions apply. That means that free-flowing open borders are not an immediate prospect.

Australia, which heavy-handedly stranded many of its own citizens aboard, is now permitting Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families, and New Zealand nationals to travel in without permits and without quarantine. Singaporeans will also be allowed access from Nov. 21. Not all states are applying the same policies, and tourists and foreign workers will have to wait a bit longer.

Thailand’s reopening applies to visitors from 60 territories including China and the U.S., but only if they are fully vaccinated. Thai paperwork remains a curse, as one new form of special entry permit has replaced an onerous temporary one, and it applies in addition to any visa conditions.

Within the country, policy depends on the city or district of arrival. In some parts curfews remain, 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, the wait for results must be done in a designated quarantine venue.

The moves in all four places reflect significant policy shifts on the part of governments, which are beginning to consider that COVID-19 is now an endemic disease, more like flu or measles, rather than a pandemic. In this, they are following the lead of the U.S. and much of West Europe.

The government decisions are helped by improving levels of vaccination in Asia. If not halting the disease, that is making it significantly less deadly — delta variant notwithstanding.

Singapore, now home to the Asia-Pacific headquarters of much of the TV industry, is reopening despite levels of new infections that would have horrified the authorities a year ago. It recorded 3,163 cases on Sunday, down from an all-time high of over 5,000 recorded just last week. But the country has also reached 84% vaccination level, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Thailand, which initially chose a policy of hermetic borders and a locally-produced vaccine, pivoted in March. It now has reached 44% inoculation, albeit with a large proportion involving the less-effective Sinovac product. That means that the fully-vaxxed visitors are actually in more danger of catching the disease from the Thai population than the locals are from the inbound tourists.

South Korea and Japan have not yet opened their borders, but within both there are similar shifts towards living-with-COVID. Some cinemas in Korea began operating at 100% capacity from Monday, albeit only for patrons who can prove their fully-vaccinated status.

Japan on Monday eased restriction on large gatherings such as sporting events and music concerts. Large venues can now accept 5,000 spectators or 50% capacity, whichever is the larger.

The policy easing comes too late for either the recent Busan Film Festival or the Tokyo International Film Festival, which got under way on Saturday. At both of these premier festivals, screenings are held in-person, but the number of overseas visitors is only in double figures, compared with hundreds in pre-pandemic years.

Hong Kong is in a well-documented policy dilemma. It has high levels of vaccination and there has been just one local infection since mid-August, but quarantine restrictions are being tightened, rather than eased. Last week the city increased quarantine durations for recovered patients. On Monday, it canceled nearly all exceptions to its already strict quarantine regime, which runs to 21-days in government mandated facilities at the visitor’s expense. Nicole Kidman, who was controversially allowed quarantine-free admission to shoot an Amazon series in August, would not be welcome under the latest rules.

This is because the Hong Kong government is desperate to reopen its border to mainland China, but it has been told by Chinese authorities that policies have not been strict enough. Allowing free-flowing visitor access from other countries into Hong Kong would represent a flaw in China’s zero-COVID strategy, which many believe will be maintained until after the Communist Party congress in November 2022.

Local and international business groups in Hong Kong have recently warned city authorities that the unscientific and draconian health regime means Hong Kong risks losing its trade and financial hub status. The government has responded by saying that relations with the mainland are simply more important.

Hardline attitudes could put Hong Kong’s position in the film industry further at risk, just as they have damaged its position for news media and NGOs. Human rights group Amnesty International last week announced that it will close both its local and Asian regional offices in Hong Kong due to the impact of a sweeping National Security Law introduced by Beijing in July 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 through the first quarter of next year, Asia’s leading film sales market FilMart, normally held in March, could become an online only event for the third time in a row.