'Travel bubbles' to start with a whole lot of rules
Korea will reopen its borders to fully-vaccinated tourists traveling in groups from countries where the Covid-19 outbreak has subsided, including Singapore, Taiwan and Guam, as early as next month.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced details of the plan to open quarantine-free travel bubbles.
“It is the first step towards the recovery of international exchanges and tourism,” the statement said.
So far, talks are underway with Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the U.S. Pacific territories of Guam and Saipan, places with “mutual confidence recognizing each other's stable coronavirus conditions,” the statement continued.
The list is expected to change depending on countries’ virus situations.
Only individuals on group tours who have been fully vaccinated will be allowed, officials said. They are easier to monitor through travel agencies.
Tourists will be required to stick with their groups and not make visits to family members or acquaintances living in Korea.
"The system allows [people to visit] for the purpose of travel, so in principle, places other than the group’s itineraries will not be permitted,” said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior Health Ministry official, in a regular briefing Wednesday.
"We are planning to restrict group tours to travel on designated routes and will not allow [them to visit other places] for other purposes as for now," Yoon said.
Travelers must have been in the departure country for at least 14 days prior to the start of the trip. This is to prevent people from another country where the virus situation is relatively dangerous from sneaking on the tours.
Travelers must test negative for Covid-19 within three days prior to the visit, and will need documents certifying that they have been fully vaccinated.
Upon arrival, health authorities will check the vaccination certificates and conduct additional Covid-19 tests. Those who test negative will be exempt from quarantine and allowed to start their tour.
Travel will be restricted to direct flights on national carriers, and airports accepting the groups will be restricted. At the start, only Incheon International Airport will be allowed, although more airports may be added.
Travel agencies must have no history of administrative violations for two years prior to the date of application for travel packages, and must designate someone to manage overall Covid-19 safety measures, such as checking group members for symptoms and making sure they follow the rules.
After the government’s announcement, some people in the tourism industry were relieved.
“The government’s announcement is like the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lee Sang-pil, a communications team official at Very Good Tour travel agency.
“We have been suffering from near zero sales for more than 16 months since the outbreak of the pandemic. But as vaccination speeds up in Korea and countries abroad get closer to reaching herd immunity, we are hoping that more and more people will be able to travel freely.”
Six people already made reservations for a travel package within an hour of the government’s announcement, Lee said.
As of Tuesday midnight, 4.5 percent of Korea’s population, or 2.32 million people, had been fully vaccinated, while 17.9 percent, or 9.2 million people, had received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The number of fully vaccinated people is expected to rapidly increase as inoculations with the one-dose Janssen vaccine will begin Thursday for around 894,000 military reservists, civil defense corps and people related to the country's defense and foreign affairs.
There were two additional virus deaths, raising the total to 1,977.
The United States on Tuesday lowered its travel advisory for South Korea to the lowest level of the four-tier system, which advises Americans visiting the country to exercise normal precautions.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 1 Travel Health Notice for South Korea due to Covid-19, indicating a low level of Covid-19 in the country," it said.
The changes reflect recommendations made by the CDC a day earlier, which called for citizens to be fully vaccinated before traveling, and said non-vaccinated people should avoid trips.
The U.S. Department had maintained a Level 2 travel advisory for Korea since Nov. 23, which advised U.S. travelers to exercise increased caution.
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]