South Korea partially eased the quarantine mandate for vaccinated arrivals in 2021 but tightened it back in December, citing concerns about the highly contagious omicron variant.
Incheon International Airport, the main gateway to Seoul and the rest of South Korea, said its passenger traffic on Friday is set to surpass 20,000 for the first time in nearly two years. Daily traffic at the airport, one of the busiest in Asia, used to be 200,000 a day on average but sunk to as low as 3,000 after the pandemic restrictions were imposed.
On Friday morning, airport workers tore down quarantine facilities for international travelers, including a designated bus station, as passengers from overseas are now allowed to take regular public transportation.
South Korea coronavirus infection rate soars with omicron surge
South Korean health authorities said the quarantine mandate can be brought back depending on the coronavirus situation. “We will continue to monitor virus risks of each country in case of situations like emergence of a new variant of concern, and we will designate and manage the range of country-based quarantine exemption in a flexible manner,” said Jeong Eun Kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.
South Korea started imposing border restrictions in March 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The measures contributed to the success of the country in responding to the virus but faced criticism from citizens returning home and foreign visitors coming for business and other purposes.
With the start of the quarantine waiver, a surge in demand has been reported by South Korean airlines and travel agencies. However, experts said international travel is not expected to immediately bounce back, given remaining coronavirus risks and a recent surge in jet fuel prices. For most of the pandemic, the Asian nation managed to keep the virus at bay without a major lockdown through widespread testing and aggressive contact tracing.
Such public health measures were partially rolled back earlier this year amid the strong vaccination rate in South Korea. There was then a surge in the highly contagious and less fatal omicron variant that drove infections to a record level. Citing the burden on health and administrative workers, Seoul health authorities changed their virus strategy to focus resources on vulnerable patients.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places South Korea in its highest coronavirus risk category of Level 4, used for destinations that have an incidence rate of more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 28 days.
In recent weeks, South Korea has been reporting one of the highest caseloads per capita in the world but keeping death rates relatively low. Starting next week, South Korea will loosen its social distancing measures, raising the cap on social gatherings from eight to 10 people and easing the curfew on restaurants and other indoor spaces to until midnight, health authorities said Friday.