Travel and tourism stakeholders have reacted to the reintroduction of travel restrictions by several Member States in response to the new variant Omicron. Countries such as France, Greece, Italy and the UK have re-introduced travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers in response to the public health risks.
In the UK, for instance, passengers are required to pre-book their PCR test before traveling. According to Lonely Planet, all passengers must include the test’s booking reference in the passenger locator form, which is to be completed up to 48 hours before departure. Only tests booked through a government-approved provider will be accepted, and the cost of a test goes between £75-140 (US $100-186), which has to be covered by each traveler.
These restrictions pose a serious challenge to the thousands of individuals hoping to cross borders to see friends and family over the holidays. It also puts pressure on travel agents and tour operators. Changing travel restrictions at very short notice has an effect on travel confidence and may undermine the efforts that have been done so far, including the EU Digital Covid Certificate, to lift movement restrictions for vaccinated and recovered people.
The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) of the United Nations has also called out against the introduction of blanket restrictions on travel. The call echoes the concerns raised by its members during the 24th UNWTO General Assembly. Several countries have expressed their solidarity with Southern African states, calling for the immediate lifting of travel bans imposed on specific countries and for freedom of international travel to be upheld.
The available scientific data on Omicron remains inconclusive, and may at times seem confusing to many people. While no deaths linked to Omicron have been recorded in Europe, it is believed that it will outpace the Delta variant. The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Africa has urged countries to follow the science rather than imposing flight bans in a bid to contain the new Omicron variant. The UN health agency announced it could take several weeks to understand the new variant and has cautioned against travel curbs while scientific data is still being gathered.
Travel and tourism stakeholders (ECTA, ETOA, HOTREC and WTTC) are urging governments to follow the Council conclusions of 16 December to “continue coordinated efforts to respond to developments based on the best available scientific evidence”. New guidance from the ECDC published yesterday indicates that the Omicron variant is now present across Europe and infections predominantly driven by community transmissions rather than travel-related cases.
The ECDC recommends strengthening of Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs), such as avoiding large public or private gatherings, encouraging the use of face masks, teleworking, etc. There is no recommendation to reintroduce travel restrictions. This is in line with the previous assessment that travel restrictions are ineffective in reducing virus transmission, hospitalizations, or deaths.
Christmas and winter ski vacations represent an important tourism season. According to Eurostat 2018/19 data, 33.7% of all nights spent in tourist accommodation establishments in the EU27 were in the winter season (November to April included). Overnight stays in the EU27 in winter 2020-2021 dropped by 71% compared to winter 2018-2019. This is also an important period for planning the upcoming summer holidays. There is still hope that Europe will not lose again an important tourism season.