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Vietnam’s cautious approach to international travel pays off

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People apply preventive measures during the first domestic flight, carried out by Vietnam Airlines to transport tourists stranded in the central city of Da Nang affected by COVID-19 at the Airport Noi Bai International in Hanoi, Vietnam on 12 August, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/VNA).

In Brief

In September, Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh approved the reopening of some commercial international flight routes after being suspended since March. Selected routes to Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan were to be reopened from 15 September, and routes to Laos and Cambodia from 22 September.


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The selection was made based on both the importance of those countries to Vietnam as well as their control of the pandemic at home. At the time, all countries had successfully controlled COVID-19. Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan are leading sources of foreign direct investment, and important trading partners and markets for Vietnam’s labour exports. They as well as Laos and Cambodia also have a significant geopolitical bearing on Vietnam.

The excitement of both passengers and the airlines was short-lived however. All routes were suspended again after just two flights from Seoul by Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet Air on 25 and 30 September, respectively. The reason was a lack of consistency in quarantine standards — especially those applied to Vietnamese passengers. Japan and South Korea are now experiencing spikes in COVID-19 infections.

The Ministry of Transport (MOT) explained the specific obstacles that brought all flights to a halt again. There was a lack of guidelines by the Ministry of Finance on fees to be collected from check-in passengers. There were also no clear procedures for handing over, managing and supervising immigrants between city and provincial governments and line ministries, with confusion for parties such as enterprises, factories and hotels. Most importantly, there was a lack of guidelines by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on quarantine and testing procedures applied to passengers. And finally, city and provincial governments had not widely announced the list of quarantine hotels, room rates, and their capacity.

The MOT has proposed a solution to address this bottleneck. This requires specific actions and coordination of various competent ministries and agencies and has made substantial progress.

It appears that everything is now ready except for the guidelines from the MOH. A recently released draft of the guidelines classifies passengers into three groups. The first group is Vietnamese passengers and their foreign relatives. The second group is foreigners who are specialists, investors, managers, international students, skilled labour, other designated individuals, and their relatives. The third group is foreigners who come to Vietnam as diplomats or on business for fewer than 14 days.

The main difference in how these three groups will be treated is the quarantine duration they must undergo upon arrival. The first group is to be quarantined fully in centrally isolated areas for 14 days. They have to show evidence of payment made for testing and quarantine services before boarding to avoid the disputes that occurred after the first two flights in September.

The second group can be quarantined for fewer than 14 days in centrally isolated areas, but still have to be quarantined at home until day 14. Both groups should have negative results within 3–5 days before boarding, fill in an electronic health declaration 12 hours before boarding, and install the Vietnam Health Declaration and tracing apps.

Upon arrival, these two groups will be tested immediately for COVID-19 and then tested again on day 14 after arrival. They also have to continue to supervise their health situation, report it via apps, and restrict contact with other people until day 28. The third group does not have to stay in a centrally isolated base, but they have to be tested every three days during their stay.

The MOH says that the draft guidelines are in the consultation process before being issued. When the guidelines will be promulgated is still unknown. The Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam will allow carriers to resume their flights as soon as the guidelines are available.

The cautious approach by Vietnam to ‘travel bubbles’ is not an exception. The idea of creating a travel bubble — where two countries with good records of controlling COVID-19 allow people to travel freely without undergoing quarantine — has been well received. But little progress has been made globally. Even when Vietnam resumes commercial flights, it will not create travel bubbles and quarantine periods will not be waived or shortened.

Vietnam clearly wants to maintain its exemplary record of controlling the pandemic, which is critical for its economic recovery. Over the first nine months of 2020, Vietnam’s GDP grew by 2.12 per cent and it is expected to be 2–3 per cent for the entire year, making the country the only major ASEAN economy with positive economic growth in 2020.

Revenue from international flights represents approximately 50 per cent of the total revenue received by Vietnamese carriers. But with COVID-19 under control, demand for domestic flights has surpassed the demand in 2019. With this record, the recovery of Vietnamese airlines’ domestic market is faster than ASEAN peers. It appears that Vietnam’s cautious approach is generating positive payoffs for its economy and airline industry.

Hoa Thi Minh Nguyen is a senior lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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