Commentary: Travel will return with a vengeance as more recover from Omicron
Omicron could turn out to be a boon for the travel industry, as more are willing to travel with peace of mind that they won’t get reinfected, says travel writer Raini Hamdi.
SINGAPORE: Travel now feels almost like it was before COVID-19 upended our lives.
When I travelled to Switzerland via Bangkok just last week, there were no tests nor contact tracing apps to download - I only had to prove my vaccination status.
The travel industry was picking up after most countries got over their Delta surge. But Omicron dashed the hopes of a slowly recovering travel industry when it emerged in the end-2021, prompting a slew of new travel restrictions ahead of the Christmas travel peak.
The number of COVID-19 cases has hit record highs in many countries since then, but the high community cases may have stirred acceptance that international travellers don’t pose any more risk than what’s already in the community.
Sensing this, some governments have lowered the drawbridge, ready to embrace endemic living with COVID-19. Travel quotas may have been relaxed. Singapore announced an extension of vaccinated travel lanes on Friday (Mar 4).
Virtually every seat in the Singapore Airlines’ lounge at Changi Airport Terminal 3 was taken when I awaited my flight to Zurich.
A HIGHLY VACCINATED WORLD CAN RETURN TO RESTRICTION-FREE TRAVEL
High vaccination rates may have something to do with it. But pre-Omicron, there was still some travel hesitancy in the air as quarantine-free vaccinated travel lanes opened up.
While travel quarantines were indeed a major bugbear for many, what was more worrying was the possibility of getting infected overseas.
What hoops might we have to jump through if we test positive overseas? How do we get medical care if we don’t speak the local language?
And what about all that hassle of arranging additional accommodation or having to stomach your company’s wag of the finger if you had to stay an extra two weeks away after an already long holiday?
All those issues melt away for someone who catches Omicron. The peace of mind it offers when you travel is an upside. With more people having recovered from an Omicron infection, some may feel more confident of the immunity it confers and look to satisfy the pent-up wanderlust.
So could Omicron, once the bane of the travel industry, turn out to be the boon that heralds its revival?
TRAVEL IS MAKING A COMEBACK
Pent-up travel demand has erupted, like champagne spurting out of a bottle.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported the fastest increase in international tickets sold in January and February since the start of the pandemic. In early February, travel ticket sales were reaching half of that in pre-pandemic February 2019.
This reflects the relaxation of travel rules announced around the world, including in Australia, France, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Sweden, said IATA.
Singaporeans, starved for a change in scenery for the last two years, too can’t wait to travel. Skyscanner saw a 71 per cent increase in searches in January up from the previous month. Top destinations searched in Singapore included Manila, Seoul, London, Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne.
Forward bookings by Singapore travellers to Australia shot up 179 per cent after the latter re-opened its borders, according to travel analytics firm ForwardKeys. “We are encouraged by the indications of return to travel thus far,” said Brent Anderson, Tourism Australia's regional general manager based in Singapore.
Likewise, Booking.com saw an uptick in bookings by Singapore travellers in the past month to short-haul destinations like Kuala Lumpur and Seoul, and those farther away like London and Paris, said its Asia-Pacific managing director, Laura Houldsworth.
Travel industry leaders believe that travel will rebound and recover in the long term. East to West, West to East, the world has wings again.
UKRAINE THROWS A SPANNER IN THE WORKS
But is it time to pop the champagne to mark the return of travel as it was?
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For one, the war in Ukraine has thrown a spanner in the works. Oil prices have surged above US$100 (S$135) a barrel for the first time in seven years.
Airfares may rise in tandem with higher fuel costs, against a backdrop of soaring inflation and higher costs of living, leaving leisure travellers thinking twice when doing the sums.
And really, talk about recovery falls flat because China, the world's largest outbound travel market, allows its residents to travel only if they serve a 14 or 21-day quarantine on their return – eye-wateringly long when many countries have reduced or removed this measure completely.
Chinese travellers made 169 million trips in 2019, spending an astounding US$255 billion while overseas, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
MAKING TRAVEL GREAT AGAIN?
The world remains far from pre-pandemic levels of connectivity. But as more travellers pack their bags, are destinations ready for them?
IATA's analysis of the world's top 50 air travel markets, which includes Singapore, shows 37 of them are open to vaccinated travellers with varying conditions. But only 18 markets have removed quarantine or pre-departure tests while the others require testing or quarantine or both.
Vaccinated travellers certainly face fewer hassles now than a few weeks ago, and this gives travellers the confidence to buy tickets.
But IATA director-general Willie Walsh thinks the removal of travel restrictions can be further accelerated, such as removing quarantine and testing for the fully vaccinated or requiring only a negative pre-departure antigen test result for the unvaccinated.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any other crisis the industry has endured.
Job losses and border measures have created a massive labour shortage, and service levels will be affected if they aren’t able to fill those roles as quickly as travellers arrive.
Domestic precautionary measures have hollowed out once lively and colourful local streets, and empty storefronts and dwindling nightlife haunts bode poorly for tourism.
Being locked within our shores for two years hasn’t just kept us from travelling and seeing the sights. It took away precious opportunities to discover new cultures, meet with friends and associates and be with our loved ones.
Omicron may have persuaded governments to re-open borders and given travellers the confidence to dust off their passports. But that’s only half the picture.
The other half is a mostly vaccinated world recovering from COVID-19, who may finally cast their minds off concerns they may catch it while travelling.
The travel industry needs to worry less about getting arrival numbers back to pre-pandemic levels and more about how to spoil guests and welcome them back in a heartfelt way.
That is not to downplay how serious COVID-19 can be. But where experts have said vaccination can render it less potent, for the majority of people in the pink of health, it looks like catching COVID-19 can come with a travel benefit.
Australia greeted its first international arrivals in two years in Sydney on Feb 21 with the words “Welcome Back World!” painted near the runways. Airline and airport staff cheered while kangaroo mascots hugged the travellers. Nearby, a banner read: “You were worth the wait.”
Word will get out that travel is fun and magical again.
Raini Hamdi is a Singapore-based business journalist who writes on hospitality, travel and tourism in Asia. She is Pacific Asia Travel Association Journalist of the Year and has authored two books on hospitality.