HO CHI MINH CITY -- A Vietnam Airlines flight from Seoul touched down in Hanoi on Friday, with businesses hoping it would be the start of a wave of commercial flights bringing back trade, and eventually tourism, to the pandemic-hit Southeast Asian economy.
Passengers covered from head to toe in chalk-blue protective suits disembarked at Noi Bai International Airport at lunchtime, photos from local media show.
Only travelers in approved categories, such as investors and diplomats, were allowed on board the aircraft, but the trip marked the restart of more routine commercial flights into Vietnam for the first time in six months. The Hanoi government has approved flights between Vietnam and six Asian cities -- Guangzhou, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Phnom Penh and Vientiane.
National carrier Vietnam Airlines, whose first outbound flight in half a year traveled from Hanoi to Tokyo on Saturday, said it planned to restore its routes for all of these six destinations.
"This is also an effort to 'overcome difficulties on our own,' aiming to soon restore international routes of [Vietnam Airlines] and other national airlines in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic," Le Duc Anh, a Vietnam Airlines representative, said in a statement announcing the flight from South Korea.
Low-cost carrier Vietjet told Nikkei its planes will be linking Vietnam with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan again starting Tuesday.
"The airline has prepared to resume regular, round-trip international flights," Vietjet vice president Nguyen Thanh Son said. He added: "Thailand, Singapore and some [other] Southeast Asian countries are also being explored by the company in accordance with the pandemic situation and the policies of the countries."
Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan are top investors in Vietnam, which has now gone three weeks without a new local coronavirus infection, and which, as of Friday, had reported a total of 1,069 cases and 35 deaths. But despite the relatively low numbers, the export-reliant economy has not been spared the negative impacts of the pandemic, and is growing at its slowest pace in 30 years.
Hanoi is set to lower this year's growth target for gross domestic product to 2-2.5%, down from the more than 5% announced in May before a resurgence in the virus hit the country in July.
Leaders have been urged to focus on repairing the economic fallout. The reopening of the country's airports will play a key role in Hanoi's efforts to get the economy back on track.
As exports plunged, businesses complained that they could not get their engineers and executives into Vietnam. Some, like electronics group Samsung, were eventually able to bring in staff via chartered flights. The country is now allowing a maximum of two flights per week per airline on approved routes. Foreign experts, investors, business managers, high-tech workers and their relatives can enter the country if they test negative for the virus before flying, and then quarantine after arrival.
"The past six months have been so hard for businesses in the tourism sector," said Ngo Minh Duc, a member of the government's Tourism Advisory Board and chair of HG Group, whose businesses include hotels and local sales outlets for American Airlines, Cambodia Angkor Air and other carriers.
With international flights to and from Vietnam mostly cut off since March, tourism revenues have plummeted in the tropical country that is known for its beaches and for the limestone karsts and emerald waters of Ha Long Bay. Workers have reskilled, with many tour guides now driving motorbikes for ride-hailing app Grab.
Hanoi has not said when these limited flights will expand to include tourists and more countries.
Duc said he did not think foreign tourism to the country would resume until next year, likely starting with Asian countries, and followed by Europe, Australia and the Americas.
When asked by the Nikkei Asian Review when they would be serving foreign tourists again, Vietnam Airlines said: "It depends on Vietnam's entry regulations in the coming time."
In fact, roughly 60% of Asia-Pacific countries remain closed to tourists. Like its neighbors, Vietnam launched a campaign to stir up domestic tourism with steep discounts on hotels and tour packages, but local spending has not made up for most of the lost income.
Vietnam remains one of the only countries in the world to forecast growth for its economy in 2020, and most offices, factories, restaurants and other businesses have been allowed to resume normal activity.
However, the hiatus of inbound tourism, combined with the drop-off in exports such as footwear and furniture, have left millions with little to no work.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the restoration of tourism and exports -- two drivers of the Vietnamese economy -- remain key issues to be addressed as the country awaits the Communist Party convention in January, which will confirm a new leadership lineup and economic growth strategy for the next five years.