Thailand, Australia and Israel eased international border restrictions significantly on Monday for the first time in 18 months, offering a broad test of demand for travel worldwide amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The relaxation contrasts with tightening lockdowns elsewhere, notably in eastern Europe where infections have hit record numbers, and in parts of China, which has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic despite relatively few cases.
Hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrived in the Thai capital for quarantine-free travel after the Southeast Asian nation approved visitors from more than 60 countries, including China and the United States.
Several European nations are also on the list as Thailand, one of Asia's most popular destinations, looks to capitalise on northern hemisphere visitors keen to escape the winter blues.
Those hopes appeared to pay off early, with German tourist Simon Raithel and a group of friends among the first to arrive.
"Right now, in Europe, it's quite cold," said Raithel, 41, who planned to head to islands in the Thai south. "We just picked this flight and it is quite surprising that we are the first flight to arrive."
In Sydney, hundreds of citizens were greeted by family and friends as they became the first to arrive from abroad without a permit or the need to quarantine since April 2020.
"(It's a) little bit scary and exciting," said Ethan Carter, who flew in from Los Angeles. "I've come home to see my mum 'cause she's not well."
While travel is initially limited to just a few states and to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families and New Zealand nationals, it heralds a plan to re-open to international tourists and workers, both much needed to reinvigorate a fatigued nation.
Australia's announcement of quarantine-free travel for Singapore citizens from Nov. 21 was a step forward to "a new normal", said Philip Goh, the Asia-Pacific vice president of airline trade body IATA.
"We are excited by this positive development and we look forward to further easing of border restrictions by Australia and other countries in the region," Goh said.
'We missed you guys'
Israel also relaxed travel rules on Monday but tourists should read the fine print before booking.
"Welcome to Israel," the government said in a tweet next to a big blue heart. "We missed you guys."
Individual tourists are allowed in if they have received Covid-19 vaccine boosters - but not if more than six months have lapsed since their last dose, with some exceptions.
That has tempered excitement among hoteliers.
"How many tourists out in the world have actually gotten boosters or are sitting in that six-month period following their second dose?" Israel Hotel Association CEO Yael Danieli said in the days leading up to the relaxation.
"Even if both parents in a family are vaccinated, their children under 12 are not, so they mostly can't come to Israel."
Members of tour groups are exempted from the six-month rule but will have to take PCR or antigen tests every 72 hours for the first two weeks of their stay.
Despite the eased curbs, world travel in full swing is a long way off.
China's tourism sector is suffering from the country's zero tolerance for Covid-19 as cities with infections, or even with concerns about infections, close entertainment venues, restrict travel or delay cultural events. Shanghai Disneyland stopped admitting visitors on Monday.
The Russian capital brought in its strictest lockdown measures in more than a year on Thursday as nationwide one-day pandemic deaths and infections hit new highs. The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv has tightened restrictions due to a spike in infections.
Eastern Europe as a whole is grappling with its worst outbreak since the pandemic started.
Britain on Monday removed the last seven countries on its coronavirus "red list", which required newly arrived travellers to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine.
The United States will lift international travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers on Nov. 8.