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WILL THE TIGER CATCH COVID BY THE TAIL?

The traditional prayers for good fortune took on greater meaning this year as people around Asia on Tuesday ushered in the Lunar New Year – the third since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak – amid concerns over the coronavirus and virulent omicron variant, even as increasing vaccination rates raised hopes that the Year of the Tiger might bring life back closer to normal.

The Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China and fell on Feb. 1. Each year is named after one of 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a repeating cycle. The Year of the Tiger follows the Year of the Ox.

Celebrations across Asia this year were again more subdued than usual, with people taking strict health and safety precautions, and some traditional festivities either reduced in size or cancelled.

In the Japanese capital, the Tokyo Tower was illuminated in red with a display to celebrate the diplomatic relationship between Japan and China, and the Beijing Winter Olympics.

In Cambodia, ethnic Chinese people performed a traditional dragon dance in Phnom Penh, while people prayed for good fortune at the Tai Hong Kong Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand.

In Hong Kong, which saw a surge in cases in January, people wore surgical masks as they shopped for red and tiger-themed holiday items. The city has closed schools because of the outbreaks and required restaurants to close at 6 p.m., forcing many to dine at home for traditional New Year’s Eve family dinners.

With the Year of the Tiger, many are hoping the traditional powers attributed to the animal will help put the country on a path out of the pandemic, said Chen Lianshan, a Beijing university expert on Chinese folklore.

“The tiger is a protection against evil spirits and it can defeat demons and ghosts of all kinds, and the Chinese believe that the plague is one kind of an evil spirit,” he said.

Elsewhere in Asia, there were signs that celebrations were subdued, though not quite as much as they were last year. Despite ongoing pandemic restrictions, most people are now vaccinated with at least two shots in many of the region’s countries.

In the old quarter of Hanoi, people flocked on the weekend to the traditional market to get decorations and flowers for the festival, known as Tet in Vietnam. Still, the country has cancelled Tet fireworks and other large events to minimize risks this year.

In Thailand, where 69% of people are fully vaccinated, Bangkok decided not to hold traditional Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown for the second year in a row, but was going ahead with lighting seasonal lanterns on the district’s main street.

In Singapore, Lunar New Year celebrations are more subdued due to coronavirus restrictions that allow residents to receive only five unique visitors a day, and preferably only one visit daily. The rules are likely to get in the way of the tradition of visiting relatives during the holiday.

Business was brisk at a flower market in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei on Monday as people made last minute purchases. Some 73% of Taiwanese are fully vaccinated.

Empowered by an 85% vaccination rate more Chinese have been travelling domestically this year despite government warnings, and many people prepared to celebrate by buying red lanterns and other decorations for their homes, and food to mark the beginning of a new year.

Still, 63-year-old retiree Huang Ping lamented as he shopped at a Beijing flower market that the new year’s “atmosphere has faded” with the closure of temples and seasonal fairs to prevent large crowds. He said he hoped for better times soon.

Some 260 million people travelled in China in the first 10 days of the holiday rush starting Jan. 17 – fewer than before the pandemic but up 46% over last year. Overall, the government forecasts 1.2 billion trips during the holiday season, up 36% from a year ago.

This year the celebrations coincide with the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open near the end of the weeklong holiday. The Chinese capital has been tightening controls to contain coronavirus outbreaks ahead of the sporting event.

The Games are being held inside sealed-off “bubbles,” and organizers have announced that no tickets will be sold to the general public and only selected spectators will be allowed.

“I’ll watch the games with my kid,” said Wang Zhuo, a retail manager from Beijing, “but of course on TV!”

First published at Travel Industry Today

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