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News for January 20, 2022

Omicron Impedes Travel Industry’s Comeback Plans

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Tourism businesses that were only getting back to their feet after almost two years of destruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are again being hit as nations put up new travel restrictions to contain the Omicron variant, a report said.

From shopping areas in Japan or tour guides in the Holy Land to ski resorts in the Alps and flights all across, the familiar fear is rising regarding the renewed restrictions.

In the meantime, those who want to explore the world are being relegated back to the routine of learning the latest requirements and delaying travel plans.

Abby Moore, a librarian and associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte was set to fly to Prague Wednesday. The day before her flight, she started being concerned when she discovered that Prague had shut down its Christmas market and had imposed a city curfew.

“I wasn’t really concerned about my trip until the Czech Republic started what looked like a mini-lockdown process,” said Moore, who decided to reschedule her travel to March.

In less than a month, after significantly loosening restrictions for international travel, the U.S. government has banned all foreign nationals who’ve recently visited any of the eight southern African countries. Similar boomerangs have been observed in Japan and Israel, and both countries have tightened restrictions just after relaxing them.

While it’s unclear where this variant originated, South African scientists identified it last week. Numerous countries like Canada, and the European Union, have imposed travel restrictions from the wider region.

Despite all the alarms, there isn’t much information about Omicron and whether it’s more contagious or causes more severe illnesses, or if it can evade vaccinations.

Yet, governments who did not react quickly to the initial wave of COVID-19 are determined to avoid making the same mistakes in the past. However, the World Health Organization says that travel bans are of limited value and will “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” Other experts say travel restrictions won’t keep variants out but might give countries more time to get vaccinated.

London-based airline EasyJet announced on Tuesday that its new travel restrictions could affect winter travel; however, its CEO Johan Lundgren said the damage isn’t quite so severe as in previous waves. SAS Scandinavian Airlines’ CEO said winter demand was increasing; however, the company “need to figure out what the new variants may mean.”

“In the past year, each new variant has brought a decline in bookings, but then an increase once the surge dissipates,” said Helane Becker, an analyst with financial services firm Cowen.

Hotels, which are recuperating faster than expected, had seen a similar trend.

“Every time there has been a variant, as soon as it clears up, a little bit (leisure travel) snaps back very quickly. Business travel is a little more uncertain,” said Ari Klein, a hotels analyst for BMO Capital Markets.

Israel’s decision not to open the country to foreign tourists hurts its tourism industry as it gears to prepare for Hanukkah and Christmas season. The country was only open for tourists in November after having barred most foreign tourists since the beginning of last year.

According to official figures, more than 30,000 tourists visited Israel in the first quarter of November, in contrast to 421,000 tourists in November 2019.

Joel Haber, a Jerusalem-based guide, explained that his calendar would be filled with excursions to Jerusalem’s vibrant Mahane Yehuda marketplace in the typical Hanukkah holiday. In reality, he’s scheduled just one tour per day.

“Tour guides like me are the first to get hit and the last to emerge and are directly prevented from working by a government decision,” Haber said.

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which is revered in the eyes of Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, local businesses anticipated an increase in tourism during Christmas. The Bethlehem Hotel, one of the most prestigious in town, has been operating only at a small fraction for the last 18 months.

“Everyone who had bookings over the next two weeks has canceled, while others are waiting to see what happens next,” said the hotel’s manager, Michael Mufdi.

“I don’t know how much longer we can last, but we are doing our best.”

The pandemic had already caused international tourism in Japan to decrease from 32 million in 2019 to 4 million last year, which has continued to shrink throughout the year.

As concerns arose about Omicron, Japan tightened its travel ban for foreigners on Wednesday and asked airlines not to accept reservations for any flights entering the country until December 31.

The usual crowds of Chinese shoppers who used to show up in Tokyo’s glamorous Ginza district in a steady stream of buses to buy luxurious items have since vanished. Bars and restaurants have been operating for limited hours.

In Asakusa, a charming part of town dotted with souvenir stores, rickshaw drivers, and stalls that sell traditional sweets, the news of the omicron version did not make an impact this week. Sellers claim there haven’t been any sales since the last few months, aside from the occasional local customer.

In South Africa, Frederic Plachesi, owner of the Tamboti Lodge in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, is suffering a similar drop in international guests that his business is dependent on.

“The odds are for the next few months, only locals will visit the lodge,” said Plachesi. “We estimate a 60% loss of business because of the omicron restrictions.”

Alpine ski resorts in Europe are concerned about how they can keep up with the latest requirements, such as making sure all skiers have been vaccinated or have recovered from the disease and have been tested negative from the virus.

Matthias Stauch, head of the German ski lift operators’ association VDS, said that many of them are small-scale family businesses that aren’t equipped to carry out these kinds of inspections. In the meantime, the association is warning of “massive” economic damage to the tourism industry in the event of another lockdown.

Travel professionals believe that government-issued decisions on restrictions should be made after more information is available about Omicron. But they admit that it’s hard to make.

“If you wait, by the time you have all the data, it’s probably too late to stop community spread because (the virus) is already here,” said Robert Jordan, the incoming CEO at Southwest Airlines. “If you jump ahead, you run the risk of the measures being more impactful than the actual cases.”

About a month ago, Javier Barragan and his husband scheduled a trip to Paris later this month. As Omicron struck the news, they were worried but decided to continue and go on the journey.

“The way that it was in the news, there’s a sense of ‘Oh, is this worse? Is this different?'” said Barragan, who lives in New York.

France’s health protocols (the couple will have to submit vaccine cards to enter the country) made them feel more comfortable. Also, both got booster shots.

However, they did purchase travel insurance that can cover cancellations for almost all reasons.

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