Many countries in Southeast Asia have been shut off from the world during the pandemic, either due to closed borders or strict entry rules. But that's starting to change in 2022 as many nations phase out restrictions and welcome travelers once again.
Vietnam is the latest country to announce a reopening date as it prepares to welcome tourists on March 15. There are positive movements toward reopening elsewhere as cases decline — or at least stabilize — across Southeast Asia. Tourists can apply to travel to Thailand without a seven-day quarantine as the country revives its Test-and-Go tourism plan. Bali lifted its travel ban in February, welcoming tourists from Australia, the UK, and the US once again. Furthermore, the Philippines ended its almost three-year leisure travel ban on February 10.
Though, not every country is throwing its doors open. Malaysia, for example, set out March 1 as a tentative reopening date but that day has come and gone and its border measures, some of the strictest in the world, remain in place. Currently, the island of Langkawi is the only place open to most foreign tourists under Malaysia's International Tourism Pilot Project.
Still, there are signs that travel in Southeast Asia is on the verge of a booming comeback, particularly in the destinations that have simplified entry protocols. Zina Bencheikh, managing director of Intrepid Travel, tells Lonely Planet that demand in the region is bouncing back with the tour company recording January 2022 as its busiest month since the start of the pandemic.
"Before the pandemic, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam were consistently among our top selling destinations at Intrepid. The region offers so much of what post-pandemic travelers are looking for; beautiful natural scenery, great local food and lots of opportunities to get active. Traffic to our website suggests there is huge pent-up demand for travel there [again]."
Similarly, Hostelworld is seeing a growth in Southeast Asia bookings in the past two months. The region overall recorded an average growth of 85% since October for the accommodation booking website, with the biggest increase (200%) being recorded in the months of December and January versus October and November.
"With more backpackers heading to Thailand and Cambodia to commence their epic adventures, we predict that Vietnam will also see a steady growth in bookings driven by its planned reopening," a spokesperson for Hostelworld says.
If you are thinking of a trip to Southeast Asia, book well in advance to secure the right trip for you. A last-minute getaway isn't feasible in many destinations, particularly with lengthy visa processing times and limited entry options. Whether you're booking directly with an airline, hotel or tour company, be sure to choose one that allows you to change your dates or destination without incurring a fee as entry protocols continue to evolve.
In the meantime, here's what you need to know about traveling to some popular tourist spots in Southeast Asia that are open right now.
1. Bali, Indonesia
Entry rules: Indonesian officials opened Bali to tourists from all countries in February. Vaccinated arrivals have to quarantine for five days in a government-approved hotel at their own expense, though this could be reduced to three in the coming weeks before being scrapped entirely in April. They must also show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test result before arrival. A second test is administered upon landing at the airport. Unvaccinated arrivals have to quarantine for seven days. All arrivals must provide proof of health insurance with COVID coverage.
How to get there: Borders are opening but getting there is another thing as there are limited international direct flights scheduled. Singapore Airlines—the first to return to Bali—resumed flights on February 16 and will operate daily flights to Bali from Singapore to "meet good demand". It's not clear whether foreign travelers can transit through another airport in Indonesia because the country is still largely closed off to non-residents and citizens. Travelers could fly into Jakarta but would have to undergo quarantine there before moving on to Bali.
What to see: For the first five days, travelers are restricted to quarantining in government-approved accommodation, which is typically a five-star resort or hotel in either tourist-friendly Nusa Dua, Jimbaran, Sanur or Ubud. Outside of that, most places are open, particularly in green (low COVID-19 risk) zones but expect shorter operational hours for restaurants and enhanced health and safety measures for attractions like Pura Tanah Lot and Uluwatu Temple. Masks are required and travelers have to download the PeduliLindungi contract tracing app to check into restaurants, bars and even beaches.
Entry rules: Traditionally one of the most isolated parts of Southeast Asia, Laos is open to tourists from select countries including the US, UK, Australia, Ireland, Israel, Denmark and Indonesia, among others, under the special Travel Green Zones and Trails programs. Other entry conditions include a health insurance policy with coverage no less than US$50,000 and a pre-departure COVID-19 test. A second test will be administered upon arrival.
How to get there: Laos is open to almost every country in Southeast Asia so if you want to include Laos in a multi-trip Southeast Asian vacation, it should be easy enough. However, the only way to enter Laos, regardless of where you're coming from, is through pre-arranged group tours with authorized agents under the Green Zone travel plans.
What to see: The designated Green Zones include the capital city of Vientiane; Luang Prabang province; and the adventure destination of Vang Vieng in the north of the country. Tourists are restricted to these zones for now but more destinations will be added to the programs on April 1 before, it's hoped, the entire country will open up in July.
Entry rules: Cambodia reopened to vaccinated international tourists without quarantine back in November, though any traveler crossing the border must present proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test result, then take a rapid antigen test upon arrival and await results at the airport.
How to get there: There are no direct flights from the US, UK or Australia to Cambodia but there are options with connections. However, according to the US Embassy in Cambodia, since it reopened, many travelers have reported unexpected flight cancellations and limited flight availability to Cambodia. The Embassy recommends US travelers book flights through a travel agency or direct with Korean Airlines or Asiana Airlines. UK travelers have additional options such as Swiss Airlines or Bangkok Airlines with stopovers.
It's not possible to enter Cambodia through land borders as the Cambodia-Laos, Cambodia-Thailand and Cambodia-Vietnam land borders are closed.
What to see: In tourist cities like Siam Reap, most places are open including the Unesco World Heritage site Angkor Wat. Hostels, hotels, restaurants and museums are open but masks are required in most places and some businesses may be operating at reduced hours so check ahead.
Entry rules: Tourists from approved countries are permitted to travel to Vietnam but are restricted to certain destinations under a pilot travel scheme potentially until March 15, 2022. In the meantime, travelers who visit must present proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test result and take out health insurance that covers COVID with a minimum of US$50,000 coverage.
How to get there: On February 15, Vietnam COVID-19 restrictions on international passenger flights and flights have resumed from San Francisco and Los Angeles in the US, as well as from Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and more. When visiting Vietnam, tourists are required to book a tour package (package details are available on the tourism board's website) and stay within their chosen destination for at least seven days. Once the seven days is complete, travelers can move to another approved destination, provided they test negative before traveling.
What to see: Tourists can choose from five beach destinations including Phu Quoc, Danang, Quang Nam, Khanh Hoa, and Quang Ninh, though starting March 15, it's expected the entire country will open to tourism with some restrictions in place.
Entry rules: After putting the brakes on its Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) program in December, Singapore is open again to vaccinated travelers from select countries including the US, UK, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and France. As of February 22, passengers no longer have to take a pre-departure COVID-19 test or isolate on arrival. Instead, they'll take a supervised test within 24 hours of arrival.
How to get there: Foreign visitors can bypass quarantine when arriving on a designated VTL flight, mainly through Singapore Airlines, KLM and Air France. However, the government notes that since these flights resumed on January 20 there has been reduced availability.
What to see: Most places are open but travelers will find museums and attractions operating at half-capacity and restaurants, coffee shops and hawker centers limiting dining to two people per group.
Entry rules: Vaccinated visitors have two pathways into Thailand: the Test-and-Go and the Sandbox programs with some testing and quasi-quarantine requirements in place. Unvaccinated visitors have to quarantine for between seven to 10 days. You'll need to pre-book some accommodation and tests before traveling. Thailand also requires all visitors to apply for a Thailand Pass before visiting which can take about 60 days to process, so planning months ahead is essential.
How to get there: Commercial flights are operating to Thailand and the government has approved entry for travelers coming from most Southeast Asian countries, as well as the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, Ireland, France, Japan and more.
What to see: If you travel under the Sandbox program, you're restricted to destinations such as Phuket or Ko Samui. If you're eligible for the Test-and-Go scheme, you can travel all over Thailand. Most major destinations are classified as "blue zones" with relaxed restrictions. Museums, historical sites, and galleries are operating under some capacity limits. Restaurants are open but bars, karaoke venues and nightclubs remain closed.
Entry rules: Borders reopened on February 10. Fully vaccinated travelers from 157 visa-free countries are permitted to visit the Philippines without quarantine but they must test negative for COVID-19 prior to their trip.
How to get there: Flag carrier Philippine Airlines flies direct routes from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and nearby Asian countries but at reduced frequencies. According to Skift, flights from London's Heathrow only depart once a week now compared to four times before the pandemic. Australian airline Qantas will resume flights from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Manila later this month.
What to see: Tourists will be able to travel across the Philippines without being restricted to specific destinations. COVID-19 measures vary by region and some tourist spots such as Siargao are still in recovery mode following December's Super-typhoon Rai. After closing to visitors due to overtourism issues, the island of Boracay is back open.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.