Tourism businesses that had just found their place after nearly two years of devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic are shaken again as countries erect new travel barriers in a bid 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, a familiar fear grows about the renewed restrictions.
Meanwhile, travelers keen on going out have been reverted to the old routine of educating themselves about the new requirements and postponing trips.
Abby Moore, librarian and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was due to leave for Prague on Wednesday. But the day before her flight, she began to have doubts when she saw that Prague had closed its Christmas markets and imposed a city-wide curfew.
“I wasn’t really concerned with my trip until the Czech Republic started what looked like a mini lockdown process,” said Moore, who decided to postpone his trip to March.
Less than a month after significantly easing restrictions on inbound international travel, the US government has banned most foreign nationals who have recently visited one of eight countries in southern Africa. A similar boomerang was seen in Japan and Israel, both of which tightened restrictions shortly after easing them.
While it’s not clear where the variant emerged, South African scientists identified it last week, and many places, including the European Union and Canada, have restricted travel from the region. at large.
Despite all the alarm, little is known about omicron, including whether it is more contagious, causes more serious illness, or may escape vaccines.
Yet governments that have been slow to respond to the first wave of COVID-19 are eager to avoid the mistakes of the past. The World Health Organization, however, says travel bans are of limited value and “will place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” Other experts say travel restrictions won’t prevent variants from entering, but could give countries more time to get people vaccinated.
London-based airline easyJet said on Tuesday that the renewed travel restrictions already appeared to hurt winter bookings, although CEO Johan Lundgren said the damage is not yet as severe as in previous waves. The CEO of SAS Scandinavian Airlines said winter demand is improving, but now we need to “find out what the new variants may mean.”
“Over the past year, each new variant has led to a drop in bookings and then an increase once the surge wears off,” said Helane Becker, analyst for financial services firm Cowen.
Hotels, which were recovering faster than expected, experienced a similar phenomenon.
“Whenever there has been a variation, as soon as it clears up a bit (leisure travel) it comes back very quickly. Business travel is a bit more uncertain, ”said Ari Klein, hotel analyst for BMO Capital Markets.
Israel’s decision to close the country to foreign visitors is hitting the country’s tourism industry as it prepares for the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays. The country only opened to tourists in November, having banned most foreign visitors since the start of last year.
Just over 30,000 tourists entered Israel in the first half of November, up from 421,000 in November 2019, according to government figures.
Joel Haber, a Jerusalem-based guide, said that on a typical Hanukkah holiday, his calendar would be filled with food tours to the colorful Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Instead, he only has one tour a day.
“Tour guides like me are the first to be affected and the last to emerge and are directly prevented from working by a government decision,” Haber said.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, local businesses expected a boost in Christmas tourism. The Bethlehem Hotel, one of the largest in the city, has operated 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 long we can hold on, but we’re doing our best. “
The pandemic has already pushed foreign tourism to Japan from 32 million visitors in 2019 to 4 million last year, a trend that has continued this year.
As concerns surfaced about omicron, Japan on Wednesday tightened its ban on foreign travelers, asking airlines to stop taking new bookings for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December. The country previously rolled back an easing of travel restrictions that had only been in place for three weeks.
The crowds of Chinese shoppers who arrived in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district on a flood of buses to shop for luxury items are long gone. Restaurants and bars have been forced to restrict hours.
In Asakusa, a quaint part of town filled with souvenir shops, rickshaw drivers, and stalls selling traditional candy, news of the omicron variant made little difference this week. Vendors say there hasn’t been any activity for months except for a few local customers.
In South Africa, Frederic Plachesi, owner of the Tamboti Lodge in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, is facing a similar drop in the number of international guests his business depends on.
“There is a good chance that for the next few months only locals will be visiting the lodge,” Plachesi said. “We estimate a 60% loss of business due to omicron restrictions.”
In Europe, alpine ski resorts are worried about how to meet requirements such as ensuring that all skiers are vaccinated or cured of the infection and have tested negative for the virus.
Matthias Stauch, head of the German association of ski lift operators VDS, said many are small family businesses that lack the staff to carry out such checks. Meanwhile, the association warns of “massive” economic damage to the tourism sector if there is another lockdown.
Travel officials argue government decisions on restrictions should wait until more is learned about omicron, but they admit it’s a tough call.
“If you wait until you have all the data, it is probably too late to stop the community from spreading because (the virus) is already here,” said Robert Jordan, the new CEO of Southwest Airlines. “If you get ahead, you run the risk that the measures will have more impact than the real cases.
About a month ago, Javier Barragan and her husband booked a visit to Paris for the end of the month. When the news from omicron arrived, they were worried but decided to continue the journey.
“The way it was in the news, there’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, is that worse? Is it different? ‘ Said Barragan, who lives in New York City. France’s health protocols – the couple will need to present vaccination cards to enter the country – have made them more comfortable. In addition, both received booster shots.
They have, however, purchased travel insurance that will cover the cancellation for most reasons.
Koenig reported from Dallas and Kageyama from Tokyo. Associated Press reporters 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; Pan Pylas in London; Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg; and Jerome Delay from Dinokeng Game Reserve in South Africa contributed.
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