As New Zealand and other nations widen vaccine mandates, a key group of Asia-Pacific business representatives say countries should incentivise, not mandate, vaccination for international travel

Asia-Pacific countries should not require people to be vaccinated for international travel around the region, a business council says, instead incentivising vaccines through “green lanes” and other streamlined border access.

In a report ahead of the APEC Leaders’ Week taking place next month, the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) said the eventual reopening of borders was “a prerequisite for the region’s economic recovery” and urged governments to develop a regional framework for travel.

New Covid variants and the changing nature of the pandemic had forced governments to frequently change travel measures according to their own assessments, resulting in “widely differing and disjointed regulations across the region, as well as duplicative testing, unnecessary costs, and time spent in quarantine for business travellers”.

“Having a regionally consistent framework would avoid a ‘spaghetti bowl’ of rules and facilitate economies to reopen their borders safely and seamlessly when they are ready to do so.”

Minimising the complexity, time and costs for safely resuming travel would allow businesses to undertake essential trips and lead to the eventual recovery of the worst-hit sectors like tourism and hospitality.

The report acknowledged developing such a system would be a major undertaking as APEC members were at different stages of pandemic response.

But while not all economies would be ready to reopen their borders at the same time and speed, the development of a framework would allow economies to reopen both safely and seamlessly when they were able to do so.

Any framework should be voluntary, consistent with other initiatives from international organisations, and take into account the dynamic and evolving health and economic situation, the report said.

“To provide assurances to immigration authorities and facilitate border processes, an interoperable system that holds verifiable and tamper-proof information on testing and vaccine status is needed.”
– APEC Business Advisory Council

Economies should consider allowing vaccinated travellers to face no or less stringent restrictions, such as green lanes for swift entry or testing instead of quarantine, with a digital health certificate system based on region-wide privacy and security standards.

“To provide assurances to immigration authorities and facilitate border processes, an interoperable system that holds verifiable and tamper-proof information on testing and vaccine status is needed.”

When deciding which vaccines would provide streamlined access for travellers, APEC members should rely on internationally recognised science “and not be influenced by political or economic considerations”.

However, ABAC recommended that economies “agree on not requiring vaccination as a precondition for travel”.

ABAC executive director Stephen Jacobi told Newsroom the body supported widespread vaccination, but at the time the report was prepared “there was widespread discussion in ABAC and elsewhere about the issue of equity in terms of vaccination”.

“It was felt that some ability to travel should be reserved for the unvaccinated, including the young and those who could not be vaccinated on medical grounds.”

Jacobi said the group’s main goal was to avoid a new “noodle bowl” of differing requirements for travellers when it came to vaccine passports and improved access for those who were vaccinated.

WTO, climate change, indigenous business at the fore

Among the report’s other recommendations were a push to reform the beleaguered World Trade Organisation, “working together to ensure the WTO can regain its full negotiating, administrative and dispute settlement functions”.

“The multilateral trading system, with the WTO at its core, is critical for prosperity. APEC economies must work together to shape a strong, credible and relevant WTO, and to reject protectionism in all its forms.”

A rising tide of protectionism since the global financial crisis, coupled with Covid restrictions on medical supplies and other essential goods, had undercut the Asia-Pacific’s economic growth and had no place in the pandemic response. 

The report also recommended that APEC integrate disaster risk into its fiscal planning, citing the Asia-Pacific’s status as “the world’s most exposed region in terms of natural disasters and climate risks”.

There was also a heavy emphasis on the challenges posed by climate change, with ABAC saying business had a key role to play alongside the public sector.

The financial sector could help provide the significant funding needed to transition to a zero-emission economy, while investment in renewable energy projects would both support the post-pandemic recovery and help meet emissions reduction targets.

The effect of Covid-19 on women and indigenous people received special mention, with a call to look more closely at how indigenous businesses could benefit from existing trade rules and to provide women with equal opportunities in the workplace while providing public support in areas like childcare and parental leave.

“To safeguard the future, we must regain the ground that has been lost and unlock the full potential of these disadvantaged groups,” the report said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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