Travel is restarting and people are eager to go more so than ever, whether for business or a break. However, not all destinations would be serving the same travel experience anymore. The new normals in travel now revolve around many factors such as the vaccines accepted, Covid-19 numbers at the trip origin, ever-changing restrictions, lock-downs, and so on among other things. New industry trends have emerged based on these dynamics and how suppliers in various countries are responding to them with new products.
Earlier last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that countries shouldn’t require proof of Covid-19 vaccination for international travel. Although WHO’s Emergency Committee previously encouraged the use of so-called vaccine passports, this change in stance comes amid a growing debate amongst world governments and various authorities on blocking the entry of unvaccinated travelers.
Independent experts warn that vaccinations should not be the only condition to permit international travel, given limited global access and inequitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Requiring a proof of vaccination can deepen inequities and promote unequal freedom of movement. They predict that if such measures are put into place, poorer countries with less access to vaccinations could face exclusion.
These observations followed the European Union’s launch of the Digital Covid Certificate a couple of weeks earlier. The digital system, the EU says, is designed to help citizens travel more freely across the 27-nation bloc and open up summer tourism. The QR code-based certificate, which can be displayed on the smartphone or printed out, indicates if a traveler has received been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, has received a recent negative test result, or has immunity due to recent recovery from a COVID-19 infection.
Apart from EU countries, the system currently also extends to non-EU countries of the border-free Schengen zone that includes Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. The participating countries agree to let people who have been fully vaccinated for 14 days to travel freely within their borders. Over 40% of EU adults are now fully vaccinated. Restrictions for other travelers are based on the degree to which the country they are coming from has Covid-19 infections under control, based on a color-coding set by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
As summer in the northern hemisphere started on a hopeful note with Covid-19 cases falling and vaccination programs progressing on both sides of the Atlantic, the EU moved to lift its restrictions on travel from the United States, and newly vaccinated tourists eagerly embarked on their first post-covid trips. But the hesitance from the side of the United States which still largely follows Trump-era rules has had the European Union reconsidering shutting its doors once again to Americans, with the recent surge in Delta variant cases adding to it.
The persistent restrictions have exasperated many in Europe. Critics of the US policy say it’s hurting businesses, dividing families, and makes little epidemiological sense, as infection levels in the United States are far higher than in most EU countries. Italy, France, and Spain are among the European countries that are most dependent on U.S. travelers, but other nations were seeing a rising interest before the pandemic. According to the European Travel Commission, the US arrivals to Europe declined by more than 80 percent last year, compared with 2019.
In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have been leading the travel restart. Earlier, each of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states had responded aggressively to the mounting incidence of Covid-19 cases, with closures of restaurants, lounges, and malls across the region. While the GCC as a whole is set to weather this storm, a prolonged global health crisis will confront them with unique economic and socio-political risks. They are all heavily dependent on the free movement of expatriate workers. Any prolonged disruption will threaten Gulf economies.
Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha have all prospered through their development as global transportation hubs, with tens of millions of passengers annually transiting regional airports. A prolonged downturn in air travel will threaten their status, as well as the economic health of their flag carriers. The UAE is also counting on millions of visitors to its delayed Expo 2020 that is now slated to open its doors in October 2021. Qatar on the other hand needs to get ready for the FIFA world cup that it’s hosting in 2022. Saudi Arabia has taken a more cautious route. The hajj was conducted with very limited numbers and the nation is still closed to travelers from many countries with high Covid-19 cases like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Turkey though has been less cautious, rising often to grab the opportunities it got while the top GCC carriers stayed low. Although the number of visitors to its historic places has plummeted, they have been fairly successful if operating as a connecting hub, especially to cargo flights. To its east, Iran has been one the first in the world to report Covid-19 cases, and the government’s continued mismanagement of the pandemic response to date, which has contributed to unnecessary loss of life and hardship, suggests that it may be many months before the pandemic is contained.
As of now, the US followed by India, Iran, Brazil, and Indonesia continue to top the charts in Covid-19 cases. They are closely followed mostly by other Western European and South-East Asian countries. Travel restrictions largely continue between these countries with the exception of travel bubble agreements. China, where the Covid-19 cases were first reported, has been highly successful in containing the virus through rigid containment and vaccination drives. It has seen a considerable rise in domestic travel and to some good extend in the regional level too.
Studies among US travelers suggest that interest and comfort in flying have steadily increased from 29 percent to 44 percent of individuals since the year began. Furthermore, the number of individuals passing through TSA checkpoints has been going up steadily to around 2 million people a day today compared to around 100 thousand people a day in April 2020. This is close to the pre-pandemic numbers of about 2.5 million a day seen in 2019. The trend is similar in the EU countries as well as in the MEA region.
The travel industry is definitely recovering from the economic downturn of 2020. But even as the industry is experiencing growing demand as we near a post-pandemic world, it is still a far short of what it was in 2019 and prior years. The growing travel demand will impact the prices of everything from flight tickets to car rentals and hotel stays, with the final amount largely depending on the location and time of the trip. Those planning to travel are advised to remain up-to-date on guidance from the government bodies and take the help of their travel advisers regarding the ever-changing health requirements and travel restrictions before finalizing their itineraries.