Not so festive, no-travel New Year
Welcome back to the real world. We may have just finished our countdown to New Year 2022 but it seems the bad dream from 2021 continues to haunt us.
Since before the New Year break, news and warnings about the new Omicron coronavirus variant have largely ruined people's festive mood. I joined my family on a road trip to visit the parents of my sister-in-law in northeastern Thailand. We were excited because it was our first time travelling anywhere together in 18 months, but we avoided visiting any tourist spots. That was a decision we made in advance for safety's sake, so I can't complain, and it was good to have quality time with the family.
As most of us returned to work last week, the bad news about Omicron seemed to multiply daily. Thai public health authorities on Wednesday declared the country is now facing a fifth wave and raised the national Covid-19 alert level from 3 to 4. If we get to 5, the highest level, we'll be looking at curfews and a ban on gatherings of five or more people … again.
Level 4 preventive measures include asking people to avoid dining or drinking at restaurants, visiting "risky" venues, and travelling, especially on public transport. Anyone who can is encouraged to work from home and venues with a high risk of virus transmission may need to be closed.
The announcement came as infections jumped from under 3,000 a day over the past few weeks to 3,899 on Wednesday, then to 5,775 on Thursday and 7,526 on Friday. Health experts have warned daily cases would quickly surpass 10,000 after people returned from the New Year break.
Elsewhere in Asia things are pretty much the same. Hopes of bidding farewell to the pandemic year of 2021 faded and celebrations were mostly scaled down or called off.
In South Korea, the traditional midnight bell-ringing ceremony was cancelled for the second year, while festivities were banned in Tokyo's glittering Shibuya entertainment district. In China, zero-Covid remains the goal, with the city of Xian still under a rigid lockdown and New Year events in other cities cancelled.
The situation is particularly tragic for the tourism industry, which was just starting to recover from two years of misery. Countries that had earlier brought infections under control and were making headway with vaccinations are once again on edge as the tourism sector frets over the return of entry curbs.
Hong Kong last Wednesday announced a two-week ban on incoming flights from eight countries, including Australia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines and tightened restrictions that are already among the strictest in the world.
In India, travel agents report cancellation rates of 30% or more for January amid a surge in new Covid cases. The country's travel and hospitality industry is staring at uncertainty once again as holidays, weddings and other events are being cancelled or postponed. State governments have been announcing a series of curbs, including night curfews, weekend curfews and travel restrictions for both international and domestic passengers.
The UN World Tourism Organization has estimated the world's tourism sector experienced losses or US$1.6 trillion in 2021 -- only slightly better than the $2-trillion hit it took in 2020. Keep in mind that the estimate for 2021 was made shortly before the discovery of Omicron.
Asian economies had been slower than other regions to ease cross-border travel restrictions, even before Omicron, due partly to slow vaccination rollouts. In any case, many experts now believe the effectiveness of travel bans is limited compared with vaccination, testing and tracing.
But that won't stop a lot of countries from reimposing restrictions, the very prospect of which has become the biggest turn-off for tourists. Some may lose the desire to travel at all, not because of the pandemic, but rather because of routes being cancelled or fear of getting stranded.
The evolving global situation poses a high degree of uncertainty and a tourism recovery in destinations with low vaccination rates, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, will remain vulnerable. Pent-up travel demand remains to be diverted domestically, and it will certainly take time to restore confidence in cross-border travel safety.
Naturally, public health is more important than travel trends. I will bet on experts saying that Omicron is Covid's last hurrah and we hope it will be overcome speedily. Then we can find more occasions to celebrate later in 2022.