How borders are being reopened: the first countries to welcome people back

author photo
Helen Fanthorpe
5/21/2020

This week, pictures have emerged of Italians enjoying al-fresco meals in pizzerias, sun-baked Greeks heading to the beach, and hikers taking to the wide-open expanses of the USA’s national parks. This is not business as usual – social-distancing measures and other hygiene regulations are strict – but there’s a thrill in seeing life creep back into cities and towns around the world. Of course, for those of us still under lockdown, it’s bittersweet watching the world resume some semblance of normality (we’re craving our turn), but here at Rough Guides, it’s provided one thing in bucket loads: hope.

And as life creeps back, so does travel. Borders across the globe are being tentatively reopened – or at least firm dates given for the lifting of travel restrictions – with a host of accompanying checks and measures to keep populations safe. So how are borders being reopened, and which are the first countries to welcome people back?

Europe

While the UK Foreign Office is still advising against international travel for an unspecified period, other countries around the continent are looking to welcome travellers back. Of course, many nations are easing their border restrictions to a select few neighbours at first, with extra safety provisions: a quarantine period, a (costly) Covid-19 test on arrival, or a health certificate from back home, for example.

Austria will be opening its borders to Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary on 15 June (with all the safety measures mentioned above); on the same date, German borders will reopen to Switzerland, France and Austria, with the resumption of limited flight schedules. Belgium is also aiming to reopen to international tourists by 15 June, a country where shops are already open – museums joined them on 18 May, with cafés, restaurants and some tourist attractions reopening from 8 June. At the present time, all new arrivals must self-isolate for a fortnight. Less cautiously, Slovenia declared an end to the coronavirus epidemic within its borders and reopened to EU citizens on 15 May (non-EU nationals will still be subject to a 14-day quarantine period).

Over in France, meanwhile, borders are set to reopen with Switzerland and Germany on 15 June; shops, restaurants, bars and beaches are expected to reopen next month, too. A health certificate clearing visitors of coronavirus will be required until at least July (the alternative being a 14-day quarantine period). In Spain, meanwhile, the Canary Islands are on track to become the first destination to trial digital health certificates when they reopen to the international market in July.

Sailing boat in Hamburgsund on the west coast of Sweden © TTPhoto/Shutterstock

Greece surprised many in how well it handled the coronavirus pandemic, and has already opened hundreds of its beaches (with new rules in play). Though the country is gearing up for a summer season of sorts, its international borders will stay closed until 1 July at the earliest, and at present a 14-day isolation period is still required for all new arrivals. Italy, however, has announced it will be dropping all its travel restrictions on 3 June – with no additional measures or quarantine period.

In the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been operating a “travel bubble” since 15 May, allowing their citizens to move freely between them since they all share a similar “low-risk” profile. The Nordics, meanwhile, remain mainly closed, with no firm date for easing border restrictions – with the exception of Iceland, which plans to start opening its borders by 15 June, and Sweden, which never went into full lockdown and where borders remain open to EU nationals and EU countries.

Asia

Asia was the first continent to record coronavirus (in Wuhan, China), and eyes have been turned on the continent as it navigates its way out of lockdown. Again, the easing of travel restrictions in the region has come with new measures – most commonly, a 14-day quarantine period, often accompanied by restricting visitors to certain countries or territories.

There’s also been a distinction made between types of travel: business travellers, for instance, are enjoying extended privileges. Hong Kong has recently announced a plan to admit some business travellers from mainland China – without quarantining – as well as looking to electronic checks as a way of creating a “travel bubble” between it, Macau and Guangdong. As early as 1 May, business travellers from South Korea were also able to enter China, again without any quarantine period, provided they took a test – and tested negative – on arrival.

Macau old town © leungchopan/Shutterstock

Many Asian countries responded quickly to the threat of Covid-19, imposing strict measures to control the virus – including shutting borders. In a continuation of this strategy, nations around the continent have been wary of lifting restrictions too early. While Thailand has extended its ban on international flights until at least the end of June, Laos – with only around twenty confirmed cases – has closed all its international checkpoints to prevent movement across its borders. But that doesn't mean these countries aren't thinking ahead to when travel is possible again: Thailand is busy planning an ambitious post-Covid rebrand with the tagline "Amazing Trusted Thailand".

In China, despite a new cluster of cases in the northeastern city of Shulan, the country is expected to announce the relaxing of its entry restrictions as early as Thursday (21 May). While restrictions would still apply to tourists, Chinese students studying abroad and business travellers could be welcomed back to mainland shores.

On 20 May, Cambodia too lifted some of its travel restrictions, allowing foreign visitors from six nations: Iran, Italy, Germany, Spain, France and the United States. Travellers will need a certificate confirming they do not have the virus, as well as proof of health insurance.

In India, meanwhile, while international travel is still off the cards, domestic flights are expected to resume from 25 May.

North and Central America

Though lockdown restrictions have been eased in a raft of US states, the country’s national borders have remained tightly sealed on federal orders since March. Though the current restrictions are due to expire on 21 May, reports suggest that the Trump administration is likely to extend the measures beyond that date.

In neighbouring Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated that the US-Canada border would likely stay closed until at least July. Most foreign nationals are still barred from the country, while anyone who does enter – for essential reasons – must quarantine for 14 days.

Across Central America and the Caribbean, varying levels of travel restrictions remain in place, some indefinitely, others with a deadline to begin a staggered easing period. In Costa Rica, borders will be closed to international visitors until at least 15 June; all commercial and international flights are currently suspended in Cuba; and in Mexico, though lockdown is already lifting in so-called “municipalities of hope” without any confirmed Covid-19 cases, borders remain closed as public-health experts express concerns that the country is only now reaching its peak.

Majestic waterfall in the jungle of Costa Rica © Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

South America

There are worrying signs in several countries in South America, where Covid-19 cases are still exploding. In recent days, Brazil’s confirmed case count (more than 250,000) has risen to third highest in the world (behind the USA and Russia), while its death toll has swept beyond 16,000. Most borders across the region are currently shut, with 14-day quarantines common for returning nationals. Argentina – usually a firm tourist draw, with its elegant capital, Buenos Aires, and the jaw-dropping landscapes of Patagonia – has imposed some of the toughest travel restrictions in the world, banning all international and commercial flights until 1 September, while borders remain shut in Brazil, Chile (until further notice), Colombia and Peru.

Traditional stilt houses know as palafitos in the city of Castro at Chiloe Island in southern Chile © Jose L. Stephens/Shutterstock

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    Africa and the Middle East

    In Africa, coronavirus has now reached every country on the continent, with more than 80,000 confirmed cases. How the region deals with the pandemic remains to be seen: though fragile healthcare systems are likely to be put under immense strain, the WHO has actually suggested we could see a lower rate of transmission than elsewhere – partly because many African nations have relatively young populations. Indeed, transmission rates already seem thankfully low when compared to those in Europe, for example. In many nations, the secondary effect of the disease is just as worrying, as shrinking economies, layoffs and stints of unpaid leave – frequently with no government scheme to prop up private enterprise – put pressure on families already teetering on the poverty line.

    Travel restrictions remain in force in nations across the continent, from South Africa – where lockdown is slowly lifting – to Morocco and Algeria. Some travel bans target specific “high-risk” countries, so if you’re looking at essential travel to a specific nation, be sure to check the relevant government website online.

    Sunrise view on Dubai city centre, United Arab Emirates © Rasto SK/Shutterstock

    Moving towards the Middle East, you’ll still find travel largely prohibited, from Jordan to the UAE and Israel – though Turkey is looking to gradually introduce international flights from June. Dubai – one of the region’s top draws – is hoping to welcome tourists back from July, where restaurants and shops have already begun a phased reopening with the introduction of stringent new hygiene measures. Its 2020 Expo has been pushed back to 2021–22 to accommodate international visitors: the show must go on.

    Beyond the Middle East of the tourist pamphlets – and most likely our travel considerations – it’s worth thinking about how coronavirus is impacting the region’s most vulnerable nations. Covid-19 presents a grave and unique threat to countries already gripped by conflict – think: Afghanistan and Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Consider donating to a charity operating in the region during these perilous times: HALO, a UK mine-clearing organization, is currently working with the National Centre for Disease Control in Libya to find public-health solutions during the pandemic.

    New Zealand's rural charms © S Curtis/Shutterstock

    Oceania

    Australia and New Zealand offered the world success stories in containing coronavirus. New Zealand, in particular, executed a model response: it shut down early with a range of stringent restrictions – and declared the virus “eliminated” as early as 27 April. Both countries are tentatively easing lockdown restrictions, with shops and restaurants opening in New Zealand last week and gatherings capped at ten people; next door in Oz, where the death toll has just reached one hundred, bars, cafés and restaurants have opened in some states.

    While the prime ministers of both countries remain cautious about lifting border restrictions, they have formally agreed to a “travel bubble” that will allow free movement between the neighbouring nations as soon as it is safe to do so. And while any travel outside the region looks unlikely for the rest of the year, New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern has hinted that a New-Zealand Pacific bubble could be up next – provided the trans-Tasman travel bubble proves successful.

    Top image: Sailing boat in Hamburgsund on the west coast of Sweden © TTPhoto/Shutterstock

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