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Tourist season is in full swing, but only coronavirus has arrived in North Korea

1-7-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

The Guardian: 25 years of Chinese rule in Hong Kong - сelebrating the loss of democracy

Chinese president Xi Jinping has hailed China’s rule over Hong Kong as he led 25th anniversary celebrations of the city’s handover from Britain, insisting that democracy was flourishing despite a political crackdown that has silenced dissent.

After swearing in a new hardline chief executive, John Lee, in a solemn ceremony on Friday morning, the Chinese president laid out his vision for the city and its administrators.

On his first trip outside mainland China since the pandemic began, he vowed that “one country, two systems” – a governance model under which Hong Kong was promised it would retain some autonomy and freedoms for 50 years – would endure.

“For this kind of good system, there is no reason to change it, it must be upheld for the long term,” Xi said, referring one country, two systems, as critics questioned whether the city’s promised high-level autonomy was still intact.

“After much turmoil, people have learnt a painful lesson that Hong Kong cannot be disorderly, it cannot afford to be,” he said. “Stability has been restored.”

The past three years have seen an unprecedented unpicking of freedoms in Hong Kong as a result of the Beijing-imposed national security law, which has seen scores of pro-democracy activists, journalists and opposition politicians jailed.

In what was described as an “important speech” by Chinese state media, Xi called on Hong Kong’s residents to contribute to the “grand revival of the Chinese race” and insisted that Beijing had always acted “for the good of Hong Kong”.

In a separate speech, the new chief executive Lee, himself a former security minister, named key protests in the pro-democracy movement as challenges the city has overcome, while Xi said the introduction of national security legislation and its revamped “patriots only” electoral system safeguarded Hong Kong people’s democratic rights.

Before the highly choreographed ceremony began, British prime minister Boris Johnson and US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Beijing had failed to respect the “one country, two systems” arrangement agreed under the deal that ended British colonial rule in 1997.

Vowing not to “give up” on Hong Kong, Johnson said: “It’s a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home.”

Blinken said Friday was supposed to be the halfway mark of 50 years of promised autonomy under one country, two systems, “yet it is now evident that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities no longer view democratic participation, fundamental freedoms, and an independent media as part of this vision.”

“Authorities have jailed the opposition … raided independent media organisations … weakened democratic institutions, delayed elections,” Blinken said. “They have done all of this in an effort to deprive Hongkongers of what they have been promised.”

Events to mark the anniversary of the handover began with a brief flag-raising ceremony at the Hong Kong convention and exhibition centre, a venue surrounded by huge police barricades. Previously, Hong Kong activists have rallied outside the ceremony but were warned by national security police not to protest this year.

Security was tight across the city. Hong Kong police’s Counter Terrorism Response Unit was deployed in Wan Chai, accompanied by armoured vehicles.

Officers also patrolled the area and conducted vehicle spot checks. Media personnel had to surrender their umbrellas before entering the events, as well as having their belongings searched and inspected.

An umbrella has been a symbol of the pro-democracy movement since 2014.

Unprecedented scrutiny was also applied to journalists covering 1 July events. Only media outlets selected by the government could physically attend the events. The Hong Kong Journalists Association said about 10 media workers from various outlets, including the South China Morning Post, were barred from the events due to “security reasons”.

AP: After two pandemic years, a summer travel bounce — and chaos

At a tourism conference in Phuket last month, Thailand’s prime minister looked out at attendees and posed a question with a predictable answer.

“Are you ready?” Prayuth Chan-ocha asked, dramatically removing his mask and launching what’s hoped to be the country’s economic reset after more than two years of coronavirus-driven restrictions. When the crowd yelled its answer — yes, according to local media — it might have been speaking for the entire pandemic-battered world.

But a full recovery could take as long as the catastrophe itself, according to projections and interviews by The Associated Press in 11 countries in June.

They suggest that the hoped-for rebound is less like a definitive bounce — and more like a bumpy path out of a deep and dark cave.

Some locales, such as the French Riviera and the American Midwest, are contributing to the climb more than others — like shuttered, “zero-COVID” China, which before the pandemic was the world’s leading source of tourists and their spending.

The human drive to bust out and explore is helping fuel the ascent, packing flights and museums despite rising coronavirus infections and inflation. But economic urgency is the real driver for an industry worth $3.5 trillion in 2019 that the United Nations estimates lost about that much during the pandemic.

By some estimates, tourism provides work for one in 10 people on Earth.

Many places, particularly those that have loosened safety requirements, are seeing what passes for a go-go summer of sunny optimism and adventure.

“They are saying it’s the summer of revenge travel,” Pittsburgh resident Theresa Starta, 52, said as she gazed across one of Amsterdam’s canals at crowds thronging to the Dutch capital. “Everything seems so bad all around the world, so it’s nice to see some things coming back.”

Despite the roaring return of travelers, challenges and uncertainty cast shadows over the post-pandemic landscape. Full recoveries are generally not expected until at least 2024.

Concerns hovered around a long list of issues, including inflation, supply chain problems, rising infection rates and labor shortages.

Before June was over, chaos had come to define travel in the summer of 2022. Airports and airlines that had cut back during the depths of the pandemic s truggled to meet the demand, resulting in cancelled flights, lost baggage and other, assorted nightmares. Spooked tourists booked trips on shorter notice, making it harder for hotels, tour operators and others to plan, industry insiders said.

Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam
Photo: ANP

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, too, added risk to the uneven recovery and contributed to inflation — a factor that could become a major obstacle even as other pandemic pain recedes.

“It’s really the fall season that is of concern,” said Sandra Carvao, chief of market intelligence and competitiveness at the U.N. World Tourism Organization. If inflation continues to rise, particularly interest rates, “families will have to rethink their spending.”

For all of the lifted virus travel restrictions, safety is not likely to recede as a concern.

Starting with the bright spots, the U.N. reported that during the first quarter of 2022, international arrivals almost tripled over the same three months last year. March this year produced the healthiest results since the start of the pandemic, with arrivals climbing to nearly 50% of 2019 levels. That could rise to as much as 70% of 2019 arrivals by the end of this year, the UNWTO said in projections it revised in May.

“It’s been summer here since spring, every single night,” said Elie Dagher, a manager of La Villa Massenet in Nice. Since April, he said, the bistro has been packed with visitors from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, but especially the United Kingdom and the United States.

In Italy, tourists — especially from the United States — returned this year in droves. The run-up to Easter was especially notable in Rome, reflecting pent-up demand to visit perennial all-star sites like the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum.

Hopes are high for Thailand, too, in the wake of its announcement last month that the country was dropping virtually all requirements other than proof of vaccination, or in its absence, a negative coronavirus test.

Now no one can predict what awaits the tourism industry and the whole world next winter. Therefore, both tourists and tourism workers are trying to take everything from the summer season.

Reuters: Rise of Arab-Israel axis spurs Iran to redouble nuclear talks push

The spectre of an emerging Arab-Israeli bloc that could tilt the Middle East balance of power further away from Iran is driving the Islamic Republic to pursue nuclear talks with world powers with renewed determination, officials and analysts said.

Indirect talks in Qatar between Tehran and Washington on salvaging a 2015 nuclear pact ended on Wednesday without progress. Iran questioned the United States' resolve, and Washington called on Tehran to drop extra demands.

But the talks' difficulty has not discouraged Iran, two officials and a politician, all Iranian, told Reuters, adding Iran's hardline establishment was set on pursuing diplomacy.

A deal would see a lifting of sanctions that have shackled its economy, eventually reviving oil exports towards the estimated 2.8 million barrels per day shipped before the reimposition of sanctions, from under one million currently.

For Iran, the unfavourable alternative could be a war in a region where geopolitical shifts may evolve into a U.S.-led alliance hostile to Tehran, the officials and politician said.

Growing worries about warming relations between Israel and its former Arab foes, including normalisation agreements between Israel and some Arab nations known as the Abraham Accords, have pushed Tehran to keep the diplomatic ball rolling.

"The region is changing, alliances are changing. Israel is normalising ties with Arab countries and Americans support all these developments," said a senior Iranian official, who is close to Iran’s top decision-makers.

"These are serious threats that need to be thwarted. Our enemies are praying to God for the end of the nuclear talks. But it will not happen."

Israel is building a U.S.-sponsored regional air defence alliance, the Israeli defence minister said this month, adding that the apparatus has already foiled attempted Iranian attacks.

Drawing closer in recent years to U.S.-aligned Arab states who worry that Iran could become a new regional hegemon hostile to their interests, Israel has offered defence cooperation.

Washington hopes more cooperation would further integrate Israel in the region. It may also preface more normalisation with Israel, including by Saudi Arabia, following the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020.

Widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arms but which sees Iran as a existential threat, Israel has threatened to attack Iranian nuclear sites if diplomacy fails to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran, for its part, will seek to weaken any regional anti-Tehran bloc, said Sanam Vakil, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, adding it will seek "opportunistic ways to divide regional states and infiltrate this alliance should it develop."

Iran has long said its uranium enrichment programme, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons, is only for peaceful purposes and has vowed a "crushing response" to any Israeli aggression.

Emboldened by high oil prices after Russia invaded Ukraine, Iran's hardline rulers are betting Tehran's fast advancing nuclear abilities could pressure Washington to offer concessions.

"We are in no rush. With or without the deal, the Islamic Republic will survive. Our nuclear programme is advancing every day. Time is on our side," said the second official. "But we want a deal that 100% serves our national interests. We want a good deal."

When asked to comment, a State Department spokesperson said: "We are not negotiating in public and are not going to respond to speculation about Iran’s positions."

CNN: North Korea blames Covid-19 outbreak on 'unusual items' near South Korea border

North Korea on Friday claimed its Covid-19 outbreak began when two residents touched "unusual things" near the South Korean border, according to state media.

The impoverished nation publicly acknowledged the virus had breached its borders for the first time in May, though it's difficult to assess the real situation on the ground due to the opaque regime and its isolation from the world.

North Korea's Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters, which had been investigating the outbreak, said Friday it had started in the Ipho-ri area of Kumgang County, north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the country from South Korea.

An 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child in the area were identified as the first two positive cases of this outbreak, and began showing symptoms after coming into contact with "unusual items" on a hill near the border in early April, according to the investigation report, released by state-run news agency KCNA.

The report did not specify what the "unusual items" were -- but stressed the need "to vigilantly deal with unusual items coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons" along North Korea's southern border.

Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

While it is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, the risk is generally considered to be low, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In late April, a North Korean defectors' activist group based in South Korea, Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK), claimed it had sent large balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets across the border.

The group also said it sent balloons carrying medical supplies such as Tylenol and Vitamin C to the North in June during the country's Covid-19 outbreak.

Both shipments were sent without the required approval from South Korean authorities.

In response to the North Korean report, the South Korean government denied the possibility of Covid-19 spreading through leaflets sent from the South, quoting local and international health experts on the low risk.

Prior to May, North Korea had not acknowledged any coronavirus cases -- though few believe that a country of about 25 million people could have been spared by the virus for more than two years.

Since acknowledging its first infections, North Korea has reported more than 4.7 million "fever cases," but claims the vast majority have fully recovered.

It is difficult to independently verify the case numbers and recoveries North Korean state media is reporting due to a lack of free media in the country.

The outbreak raised alarm internationally, given North Korea's dilapidated public health infrastructure, lack of testing equipment and largely unvaccinated population.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva