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Concerns growing over increasing overseas travel amid soaring infections

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A check-in area of Incheon International Airport Terminal 1 is crowded with tourists, Nov. 5. Yonhap
A check-in area of Incheon International Airport Terminal 1 is crowded with tourists, Nov. 5. Yonhap

Foreign ministry, experts call for canceling non-essential trips abroad

By Jun Ji-hye

An increasing number of people here have been planning overseas trips, after the government implemented its "Living with COVID-19" scheme at the start of this month and more destinations around the world have eased mandatory quarantine rules for fully vaccinated travelers.

This has been raising expectations for a rebound in the tourism and aviation industries that have been hit hard by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, while at the same time raising concerns over the further resurgence of virus infections, including breakthrough cases involving people who tested positive even after having been fully vaccinated.

Korea has signed travel bubble agreements with Saipan and Singapore, aiming to exempt or ease rules on mandatory quarantine for travelers to and from both destinations who have been fully vaccinated.

An increasing number of other destinations including Guam, Hawaii and Maldives have also exempted or eased quarantine rules for fully vaccinated travelers.

In Korea, 79.3 percent of the country's 52 million people ― and 91.1 percent of adults ― have been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

According to data tallied by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the number of tourists who departed for Saipan from Incheon International Airport stood at 2,086 in October, up 131 percent from September.

The number of travelers departing for Saipan, Guam and Singapore was tallied at 8,703 in October, up 55 percent from September.

These figures are expected to increase further, considering people's growing sense of freedom following eased social distancing and quarantine rules.

According to a report issued Nov. 17 by the financial services company Visa, three in 10 Korean people said they were willing to travel overseas in the next 12 months.

Korean Air planes are parked at Incheon International Airport, Nov. 1. Yonhap
Korean Air planes are parked at Incheon International Airport, Nov. 1. Yonhap

But this aspiration to travel is causing concerns, at a time when the country has been facing yet another crisis since the implementation of the "Living with COVID-19" scheme, aimed at achieving a "return to normalcy" through a gradual phasing out of many coronavirus-related restrictions.

The nation's daily caseload hit an all-time high of 4,115 Tuesday, with critical cases climbing to a fresh high of 612 Wednesday.

Amid mounting concerns over the continued spread of COVID-19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs extended its special advisory against overseas travel for another month until Dec. 13, recommending residents to cancel or postpone non-essential travel abroad.

The ministry first issued the special advisory on March 23 last year and has since extended it.

Concerns have been especially centered on the possibility that the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines could wear off over time, which could result in the increasing risk of breakthrough infections among travelers.

A related case has been already reported, as a Korean tested positive while on a honeymoon in the Maldives on Nov. 17, although she tested negative during a test conducted in Korea before her departure, according to tourism industry officials.

Experts called on residents to refrain from planning overseas trips, except for essential ones, as many countries around the world are facing further waves of the pandemic.

"People can easily be infected with the coronavirus in crowded places such as airports, and locations such as restaurants and entertainment facilities where they take off their face masks," said Chun Eun-mi, a respiratory disease specialist at Ewha Womans University Medical Center. "People should wear face masks at all times while traveling and go through COVID-19 testing after returning home."

Jun Ji-hye

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