Tourism companies, barely gaining a foothold after nearly two years of devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic, are shaken again as countries put new travel barriers to contain the Omicron variant.
From shopping districts in Japan and tour guides in the Holy Land to ski resorts in the Alps and airlines around the world, the familiar fear of the renewed restrictions is growing.
Meanwhile, travelers who would like to go out have been thrown back into the old routine of finding out about new requirements and postponing trips.
Abby Moore, librarian and associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, was due to leave for Prague on Wednesday. But the day before her flight, she had doubts when she saw that Prague had closed its Christmas markets and imposed a city-wide curfew.
“I wasn’t really concerned about my trip until the Czech Republic started a mini-lockdown process,” said Moore, who decided to postpone her trip until March.
Less than a month after significantly easing restrictions on international entry, the US government has banned most foreign nationals who have recently been to any of South Africa’s eight countries. A similar boomerang was seen in Japan and Israel, both of which tightened restrictions shortly after they were eased.
Although it’s not clear where the variant originated, South African scientists identified it last week, and many places have restricted travel from further afield, including the European Union and Canada.
Despite all concerns, little is known about Omicron, including whether it is more contagious, causes more serious illness, or can bypass vaccines.
Still, governments that were slow to respond to the first wave of COVID-19 are keen to avoid past mistakes. However, the World Health Organization says travel bans are of limited value and “place a heavy burden on life and livelihoods”. Other experts say travel restrictions don’t rule out variants, but could give countries more time to get people vaccinated.
London-based airline easyJet said Tuesday that the renewed travel restrictions are already hurting winter bookings, although CEO Johan Lundgren said the damage was not yet as severe as in previous waves. The CEO of SAS Scandinavian Airlines said winter demand was rising, but now we have to “find out what the new variants could mean”.
“In the past year, every new variant brought a decrease in bookings, but then an increase as soon as the increase subsided,” says Helane Becker, an analyst at the financial services company Cowen. “We expect the same pattern this time”.
Israel’s decision to close the country to foreign visitors hits the country’s tourism industry as it prepares for the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays. The country didn’t open to tourists until November after most foreign visitors had been banned since early last year.
According to the government, just over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, compared with 421,000 in November 2019.
Joel Haber, a Jerusalem-based tour guide, said his calendar would be full of food tours of Jerusalem’s colorful Mahane Yehuda Market during a typical Hanukkah holiday. Instead, he only has one tour a day.
“Tour operators like me are the first to be hit and the last to show up and are being prevented from working directly by a government decision,” said Haber.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, local businesses expected a boost from Christmas tourism. The Bethlehem Hotel, one of the largest in the city, has been busy at a fraction of its capacity for the past 18 months.
“Everyone who had booked in the next two weeks canceled, while others are waiting to see what happens next,” said hotel manager Michael Mufdi. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold out, but we’re doing our best.”
The pandemic has already caused foreign tourism to Japan to shrink from 32 million visitors in 2019 to 4 million last year, a trend that has continued this year.
As concerns about Omicron surfaced, Japan tightened its ban on foreign travelers on Wednesday and urged airlines not to accept new reservations for any flights arriving in the country until the end of December. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has urged avoiding “the worst-case scenario” and reversed a relaxation of the three-week travel restrictions.
The masses of Chinese shoppers who used to arrive in a stream of buses in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district to grab luxury items have long since disappeared. Restaurants and bars were forced to limit their opening times.
In Asakusa, a quaint neighborhood full of souvenir shops, rickshaw drivers, and stalls selling traditional sweets, news about the Omicron variant barely mattered this week. Sellers say there have been no stores in months except for a few local customers.
The boat charter operator Tokyo Water Taxi started on the city’s waterfront in 2015 when hopes were high that it would benefit from the booming tourism trade. With the variant that postpones the return of foreign visitors far into the future, the company is trying to look positive.
“It’s becoming increasingly popular with Tokyo residents who have lost other opportunities to talk,” said company spokeswoman Yuha Inoue.
In Europe, alpine ski resorts are concerned about how to keep up with demands, e.g. B. Ensure that all skiers are vaccinated or have recovered from infection and have tested negative for the virus.
Matthias Stauch, chairman of the Association of German Ski Lift Operators VDS, said that many are small family businesses that lack the staff for such controls. Meanwhile, the association warns of âmassiveâ economic damage to the tourism industry if there is another lockdown.
Tour guides argue that government decisions on restrictions should wait until more is known about omicron, but they admit that it is a difficult decision to make.
“If you wait, it’s probably too late when you have all the data to stop the community spreading because (the virus) is already there,” said Robert Jordan, the new CEO of Southwest Airlines at Risk Measures are more effective than the actual cases. “
About a month ago, Javier Barragan and his husband booked a visit to Paris for the end of this month. When the news came from Omicron, they were concerned but decided to continue the journey.
âAs it was on the news, there is a feeling of, ‘Oh, is that worse? Is that different? ‘âSaid Barragan, who lives in New York. France’s health records – the couple must provide vaccination cards to enter the country – made them feel more comfortable. In addition, both got booster shots.
However, you have purchased travel insurance that will cover cancellation for most reasons.
Koenig reported from Dallas and Kageyama from Tokyo. Associate Press Writer Mae Anderson and Tali Arbel in New York; Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Jack Jeffery in Bethlehem, West Bank; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Panpylas in London; and Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg contributed to this.