Asia to reopen for travel as more is learned about the Omicron variant, with recent border tightening just a ‘temporary slowdown’ on the road to recovery, senior industry representative says air transport.
In an exclusive interview, Philip Goh, regional chief of the International Air Transport Association, told Al Jazeera he is optimistic that travel to Asia will resume in 2022 despite the region’s travel restrictions doubling in answer to the variant.
âPeople miss travel and they want to travel. You can’t replace a hug, a handshake with a virtual zoom call, âGoh said. âVideos also cannot capture and invigorate the senses stimulated by the sights, sounds and scents of the places we travel. “
Goh, IATA vice president for Asia-Pacific, said governments in the region that had relied on isolation to control COVID-19 more than any other part of the world would end up reopening because ” their citizens want to travel and ask for it â.
âThey also understand the need for economies dependent on global trade and commerce to reestablish trade routes and allow connectivity to flourish again,â Goh said.
“This is a temporary setback,” added Goh, who attributed Asia’s strict border policies to “the risk-unfavorable nature of the region and memories of the SARS pandemic in 2003”.
“We are optimistic that plans to restart international travel will resume when more is known about Omicron.”
Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have reintroduced strict travel restrictions in response to Omicron, while mainland China, Hong Kong and New Zealand have doubled ultra border controls. -existing strictures.
The region’s growing isolation comes as countries like the United States, Australia and Canada relax testing and isolation rules as it is increasingly recognized that efforts to tightly control the spread of the highly transmissible strain Omicron have become too disruptive for everyday life.
Although Omicron is believed to be two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant, the strain of coronavirus has been linked to milder disease.
In a study published Wednesday in The Lancet, South African researchers found that only 4.9% of cases in the most recent wave in Gauteng province were hospitalized, compared to 18.9% in the second wave. . The study, which was not peer-reviewed, also found that patients were 73% less likely to have severe disease than those admitted in the country’s third wave, which was dominated by the Delta variant. .
On Thursday, the South African government announced that its Omicron wave had peaked without a significant increase in the number of deaths. In the UK, where the daily number of COVID-19 cases is still breaking records, the number of patients in ventilation beds is less than a quarter of their January peak.
Even before the variant’s arrival, Asia-Pacific had yet to see a significant rebound in travel. Air traffic in the region fell 92.8% in October compared to October 2019, according to IATA data. In comparison, travel to North America and Europe fell only 57% and 50.6%, respectively, over the same period.
” Desire to travel “
Although credited with reducing deaths from COVID-19, the region’s isolation has decimated travel-dependent industries such as tourism, separated families, disrupted education, work and migration plans and disrupted supply chains.
Earlier this month, IATA chief executive Willie Walsh criticized governments that introduced travel bans in response to Omicron for “endangering the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild “.
In November, IATA published a plan to restart international travel that called on authorities to adopt “simple, consistent and predictable” measures. The proposals included removing all barriers for vaccinated travelers and allowing travel without quarantine for passengers who are not vaccinated but whose antigen test result is negative.
Goh said the effective shutdown of aviation in the region highlighted “the immense importance of aviation in our lives, which is often taken for granted.”
âPeople missed not being able to connect with their friends and family. People feel less good in terms of life experiences gained by exploring new cultures or getting an education abroad, âhe said. “The fact that travel bookings have increased every time the border reopens are announced reveals the desire to travel.”
Goh said there was a need to have a more balanced discussion of the costs of fighting COVID-19.
“This is why we need governments to consider reopening the borders, allowing the free flow of air travel without quarantine by treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease and managing it with testing and vaccination,” a- he declared.