Asia will reopen to travel as more is learned about the Omicron variant, with the recent tightening of borders only a “temporary speed bump” on the road to recovery, according to a top representative of the airline industry.
In an exclusive interview, Philip Goh, regional head of the International Air Transport Association, told Al Jazeera he is optimistic about the resumption of travel in Asia in 2022 despite doubling the region’s travel restrictions in response to the variant.
“People miss travel and they want to travel. “You can’t replace a hug, a handshake with a virtual zoom call,” Goh said. “Videos also cannot capture and rejuvenate the senses stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of the places we travel to.”
Goh, IATA vice president for Asia-Pacific, said governments in the region that relied on isolation to control COVID-19 more than any other part of the world would eventually reopen because “their citizens want to travel and ask for it” .
“They also understand the need for economies that depend on global trade and commerce to re-establish trade lanes and to allow connectivity to flourish again,” Goh said.
“This is a temporary setback,” Goh added, attributing Asia’s strict border policy to the “risk-averse nature of the region and memories of the SARS pandemic in 2003”.
“We are optimistic that plans to resume international travel will resume as more is learned about Omicron.”
Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have reset difficult travel limits in response to Omicron, while mainland China, Hong Kong and New Zealand have doubled on existing ultra-strict border controls.
The region’s deepening isolation comes as countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada facilitate testing and isolation rules amid growing recognition that efforts to accurately control the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron strain have become too disruptive for everyday life.
Although Omicron is believed to be two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant, the coronavirus strain is associated with milder diseases.
In a study published in The Lancet on Wednesday, South African researchers found that only 4.9 percent of the cases were hospitalized during the most recent spate in the province of Gauteng, compared to 18.9 percent during the second wave. The study, which was not peer-reviewed, also found that patients were 73 percent less likely to have serious illnesses than those admitted during the country’s third wave, which was dominated by the Delta variant.
On Thursday, the South African government has announced that its Omicron wave has peaked with no significant increase in deaths. In the UK, where the daily number of COVID-19 cases is still breaking records, the number of patients in ventilated beds is less than a quarter of their peak in January.
Even before the variant’s arrival, the Asia-Pacific had not yet seen a significant setback in travel. Air traffic in the region decreased by 92.8 percent in October compared to October 2019, according to IATA data. By comparison, travel in North America and Europe was down just 57 percent and 50.6 percent, respectively, in the same period.
‘Desire to travel’
Although credited with reducing deaths due to COVID-19, the region’s isolation has travel-dependent industries such as tourism, divorced families, upgraded plans for study, work and migration, and disrupted supply chains.
Willie Walsh, director general of the IATA, earlier this month criticized governments that imposed travel bans in response to Omicron for “endangering the global connection that took so long to rebuild”.
In November, the IATA released a blueprint for resuming international travel calling on authorities to take “simple, consistent and predictable” measures. The proposals included removing all barriers for vaccinated travelers and allowing quarantine-free travel for passengers who have not been vaccinated but have a negative antigen test result.
Goh said the effective shutdown of the region’s aviation highlighted the “tremendous importance of aviation in our lives, which is often taken for granted”.
“People missed not making contact with friends and family. “People feel worse in terms of life experiences gained by exploring new cultures or obtaining an overseas education,” he said. “The fact that travel bookings have increased when border reopening is announced shows the desire to travel.”
Goh said there is a need for more balanced discussion on the cost of combating COVID-19.
“This is why our governments need to look at the reopening of borders, which allows the free flow of air travel without quarantine by treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease and managing it through testing and vaccination,” he said. he said.