Travel businesses, which were just getting started after nearly two years of devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, are struggling again as countries create new travel obstacles in an attempt to contain the omicron option.
From shopping districts in Japan and guides in the Holy Land to ski resorts in the Alps and airlines around the world, there is a growing familiar fear of renewed restrictions.
In the meantime, travelers wanting to get there have been thrown back into the old routine of reading new demands and postponing travel.
READ MORE: Omicron keeps the world on edge as more information becomes available
Abby Moore, librarian and assistant professor at Charlotte University of North Carolina, was due to leave for Prague on Wednesday. But the day before departure, she began to hesitate when she saw that Prague had closed its Christmas markets and imposed a city-wide curfew.
“I didn’t really care about my trip until what looked like mini-isolation started in the Czech Republic,” said Moore, who decided to postpone her trip to March.
Less than a month after significantly easing restrictions on international inbound travel, the US government has banned most foreign nationals who have recently traveled to any of eight South African countries. A similar boomerang was seen in Japan and Israel, which tightened restrictions shortly after they eased.
While it’s unclear where this variant originated, South African scientists identified it last week and many places have restricted travel from the wider region, including the European Union and Canada.
Despite all the worry, little is known about omicron, including whether it is more contagious, causes more serious illness, or may avoid vaccination.
Nonetheless, governments that have been slow to respond to the first wave of COVID-19 are keen to avoid the mistakes of the past. However, the World Health Organization says travel bans are of limited value and “will be a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” Other experts say travel restrictions won’t save options, but may give countries more time to vaccinate people.
London-based airline easyJet said Tuesday that renewed travel restrictions are already affecting bookings in the winter, although CEO Johan Lundgren said the damage is not as severe as during previous waves. The CEO of SAS Scandinavian Airlines said that winter demand is on the rise, but now we “need to figure out what the new options might mean.”
“In the past year, each new option has resulted in fewer bookings, but then more when the surge dies down,” said Helan Becker, an analyst at financial services firm Cowen. “We expect the same sample” this time too.
Israel’s decision to close the country to foreign visitors is having a huge impact on the country’s tourism industry as it prepares for Hanukkah and the Christmas holidays. The country only opened to tourists in November, after excluding most foreign tourists since the beginning of last year.
Israel received just over 30,000 tourists in the first half of November, up from 421,000 in November 2019, according to government figures.
Jerusalem guide Joel Haber said his calendar would be packed with food tours of Jerusalem’s colorful Mahane Yehuda market during a typical Hanukkah holiday. Instead, he only has one tour a day.
“Guides like me are the first to hit the mark and appear last, and the government’s decision directly interferes with their work,” Haber said.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, local businesses expected growth from Christmas tourism. Hotel Bethlehem, one of the largest in the city, has had a low workload for the past 18 months.
“Everyone with bookings in the next two weeks has been canceled, while others are waiting to see what happens next,” said hotel manager Michael Mufdi. “I don’t know how long we can hold out, but we are doing our best.”
READ MORE: US Accelerates Virus Tracking After Slow Start
The pandemic has already led to a decline in foreign tourism in Japan from 32 million visitors in 2019 to 4 million last year, a trend that continues this year.
With concerns over the omicron, Japan tightened its ban on foreign travelers on Wednesday, asking airlines to stop accepting new bookings on all flights arriving in the country until the end of December. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida insisted on avoiding a “worst-case scenario” and lifted the easing of travel restrictions that had been in effect for only three weeks.
The crowds of Chinese shoppers who used to flock to Tokyo’s glittering Ginza district on a stream of buses to buy luxury goods have long since disappeared. Restaurants and bars were forced to limit opening hours.
In Asakusa, a quirky part of town filled with gift shops, rickshaw drivers and traditional candy stalls, news of the omicron variant has changed little this week. The sellers say they have had no business for several months, save for a few local customers.
Charter boat operator Tokyo Water Taxi began operations on the city’s waterfront in 2015 with high hopes of making a profit from the booming tourism trade. With an option that pushes the return of foreign visitors far into the future, the company is trying to look on the bright side.
“It is becoming popular with Tokyo residents who have lost other ways to entertain themselves,” said company spokeswoman Juha Inoue.
In South Africa, Frederic Placesi, the owner of the Tamboti lodge in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, has faced a similar decline among the foreign visitors on whom his business depends.
“There is a possibility that only local residents will visit the house in the next few months,” Plahesi said. “We estimate a 60% loss of business due to omicron limitations.”
In Europe, ski resorts are worried about how to comply with requirements, such as that all skiers get vaccinated or cured of an infection and tests for the virus are negative.
Matthias Stauch, head of the German association of ski lift operators VDS, said many of them are small, family-owned businesses that lack the staff to carry out such inspections. Meanwhile, the association warns of “huge” economic damage to the tourism sector in the event of a new lockdown.
Travel executives say government decisions on restrictions should wait until more is known about omicron, but they admit it’s a difficult question.
“If you wait until you have all the data, it will probably be too late to stop the spread of the community because (the virus) is already here,” said Robert Jordan, the new CEO of Southwest Airlines. “If you get ahead of yourself, you risk that the actions you take will be more effective than the actual actions.”
About a month ago, Javier Barragán and his husband booked a trip to Paris for the end of this month. When news of the omicron came out, they were worried but decided to continue their journey.
“As it was on the news, there is a feeling, ‘Oh, is this worse? Is that something else? “- said Barragán, who lives in New York. France’s health protocols – couples will need to provide vaccination cards to enter the country – have made them feel more comfortable. In addition, both received booster shots.
However, they bought travel insurance that will cover cancellations for any reason.
Koenig reported from Dallas and Kageyama from Tokyo. Associated Press writers May Anderson and Tali Arbel in New York; Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Jack Jeffrey in Bethlehem, West Bank; Frank Jordaens in Berlin; Pan Pilas in London; and Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg contributed.