TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan began welcoming back visitors on Thursday after finally ending mandatory quarantines to control the spread of COVID-19, with gifts of cuddly toy black bears for the first tour group that stepped off the plane shortly after midnight.
Taiwan had kept some of its entry and quarantine rules in place as large parts of the rest of Asia relaxed or lifted them completely, although in June it cut the number of days required in isolation for arrivals to three from seven previously.
While Taiwan has reported almost seven million domestic cases since the start of this year, the government has pressed on with its re-opening, saying life has to return to normal, especially given high vaccination rates.
The government welcomed the first arrivals benefiting from the end of quarantine on a flight from Bangkok at Taiwan's main international airport at Taoyuan, outside Taipei.
Excited tourists posed for pictures amid a throng of media and officials, and were met off the plane by Tourism Bureau Director-General Chang Shi-chung.
"This is an opportunity to bring back to life and rebuild cross-border tourism," Chang told reporters.
Tidarat Tor-Ekbundit, a tourist from Thailand, said she wasn't worried about COVID-19.
"Not only Taiwan but every country, we have to adjust ourselves to live with COVID," she said.
Some rules remain, including a requirement for people to monitor their health for seven days after arrival and perform rapid tests on themselves.
Taiwan's two main carriers, China Airlines Ltd and Eva Airways Corp, have ramped up flights, returning capacity on routes that were slashed during the pandemic and planning new services to cities like Da Nang in Vietnam.
Taiwanese citizens and foreign residents have not been prohibited from leaving and then re-entering during the pandemic, but had to quarantine at home or in hotels for up to two weeks.
Prior to the pandemic, Taiwan was a popular tourist destination, mostly for travellers from Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia, attracted by the island's cuisine and natural beauty.
(Reporting by Ann Wang; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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