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Will travel return in 2021?

The beach is calling - this year has already seen a rise in family and larger group holiday bookings.

With a handful of Covid-19 vaccinations now officially rolled out and increasing reports of ‘Covid cures’, it looks like international travel might be finally be within our grasp.

The desire to travel is bubbling its way towards boiling point with Asia Pacific now shut down for nearly a year. A recent survey by Asia Family Traveller investigating travel trends for 2021 found that 72% of respondents couldn’t wait to jump on a plane to see family, with many indicating that they would be keen as mustard to combine the reunion with a much-dreamt of beach break.

But despite a so-far-so-good vaccination roll-out, travel bookings have plummeted. The International Air Transport Association slammed governments this week following a raft of flight bans, increased quarantine and the introduction of yet more testing requirements following the detection of a new Covid variant by British scientists, another new strain in South Africa and, most recently, worrying mutations in both Brazil and California.

“We are working tirelessly with governments to keep flying safe and reduce the risk of Covid-19 importation by travel,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general and chief executive officer of IATA during a media briefing this month. “But… the (airline) industry’s situation is still perilous. In fact, it got worse over the year-end holiday period. Instead of a boost from the year-end holiday period, we got even more restrictions.”

De Juniac took aim at Canada, the UK, Germany and Japan, accusing them of choosing policy measures that will “shut down travel” by adding testing to their Covid-19 measures without removing quarantine.

“This approach tells us that these governments are not interested in managing a balanced approach to the risks of Covid-19. They appear to be aiming for a zero-Covid world,” fumed de Juniac.

Indeed, a return to travel was apparently bottom of the Hong Kong government’s priority list in December when it introduced a three-week hotel quarantine for all travellers (except for those from China), as well as banning all flights from the UK and South Africa. The regulations are not due to be reassessed until the end of January. In the meantime, flights from Ireland and Brazil have also been added to the prohibited list.

Figures released by Hong Kong International Airport this week show that fewer than nine million people passed through Hong Kong’s airport in 2020, the lowest level since 1985. More than 90% of the 8.8 million passengers that did use the airport came in the first three months of 2020 and before border restrictions were introduced. In 2019, the airport welcomed more than 70 million passengers and was one of the busiest airport hubs in the world.

And data published by Hong Kong Tourism Board this week report a near-total collapse in tourism. In 2019, a year when tourist visits had already slowed due to anti-government protests, 55.9 million tourists arrived in the Asian city. In 2020, that number shrank to just 3.57 million. The introduction of a three week hotel quarantine on Christmas Day killed off any incoming travel that remained.

Such has been the impact of the pandemic on air travel, Hong Kong ‘flag carrier’ Cathay Pacific was forced to axe its regional subsidiary, Cathay Dragon, in October last year resulting in 5,300 job losses. This was the city’s biggest mass lay-off in three decades.

IATA is calling for a more balanced approach to border restrictions, replacing quarantine with testing if we are to stop more job losses and destroy the tourism industry to the point that it will be unable to recover.

“Science tells us that travellers will not be a significant factor in community transmission if testing is used effectively,” said de Juniac. “But most governments have tunnel-vision on quarantine and are not at all focused on finding ways to safely re-open borders - or alleviate the self-imposed economic and mental health hardships of lockdowns.”

Countries such as Thailand have attempted to entice visitors with a long stay visa. Travellers would still need to complete a 14-day quarantine but it would come with certain freedoms, such as the ability to play golf or leave your room and use selected hotel amenities after a negative test on day four. The country hoped to attract around 1,200 visitors a month, particularly targeting retirees looking to escape the European winter. Once quarantine was completed, visitors would be free to stay for up to nine months. However, just 346 holiday-makers entered the country on average, according to Thailand Longstay Company, which helps facilitate the programme.

It seems that at the end of the day, quarantine is both costly and unpalatable, even with a handful of perks thrown in.

Travel corridors have also had limited success. Would-be Asia-based travellers looked on with dismay at the end of 2020 as the much vaunted Singapore-Hong Kong air travel corridor collapsed due to a fourth wave of infections in Hong Kong.

Currently most of Asia is locked down with heavy quarantine requirements (Hong Kong has some of the most prohibitive in the world with its three week hotel quarantine for arrivals from all countries excluding China). In Europe, even 'light approach' Britain has now closed its 'safe' travel corridors and banned flights from southern Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius, South America, Portugal (including the Azores and Madeira) and Cape Verde. There has even been talk of a New Zealand-style hotel quarantine being introduced at UK airports and seaports.

But if we were happy to 'suck up' quarantine on our return to Asia, where could we theoretically travel right now? The Maldives has enjoyed a successful comeback since it opened its borders in July, much of the Caribbean is welcoming travellers (albeit with a four-day quarantine for some islands), Iceland is open if you have proof of Covid-19 antibodies, Sri Lanka reopens its borders on January 23 and Dubai has been welcoming all nations since the summer.

Significantly, the Seychelles and Cyprus have both announced that they are now open, quarantine- and regulation-free, to travellers who have been inoculated against Covid-19.

This move feeds into the popular belief that only vaccinations will end the travel impasse. Michael O’Leary, chief executive of budget airline Ryanair, confirmed this line of thought in a radio interview with the BBC last month. “We think it (the vaccine) will create - certainly by the summer of 2021 - a return to families travelling on much-needed holidays, certainly within Europe,” he said.

“To bring this pandemic to an end a large share of the world needs to be immune to the virus,” said data research group, One World in Data in a statement. “The safest way to achieve this is with a vaccine.”

And so the glimmer of light is the (so far) successful roll-out of vaccination programmes in several countries, including the UK, Europe, Iceland, Israel, the Middle East, Canada, China, Russia and Singapore.

By the middle of January, around 32 million doses of vaccine had been administered globally, including ten million each in the US and China, three million in the UK and two million in Israel.

Pfizer BioNTech, Oxford AstraZeneca and Moderna have been given the all-clear for use in several countries and US pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has published positive results for its one-jab vaccine. Early stage trials show it generated an immune response with minimal side-effects after a single dose. More details should become available later this month with authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration anticipated soon after.

British travel operators were reporting a rise in demand this week in the over-50s and for inter-generational group bookings, indicating that the UK's vaccine roll-out is having a positive effect on travel confidence. According to TUI, Britain's largest tour operator, half of its current bookings are by over 50s.

"People are booking longer holidays," TUI boss Andrew Flintham told the BBC this week. "We're seeing more people booking ten or eleven or 14 nights rather than seven. People are maybe catching up on what they've missed." He added that most bookings are for later in the summer, with "a lot of demand" for September and October.

Vaccination passports are widely viewed as being the key to opening up international travel. Travel industry group Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) agrees. IATO director Noel Josephides indicated that vaccination passports, comprehensive insurance with full Covid cover and collaboration with host destinations to ensure visitors are subject to the correct paperwork are key to a successful return to international travel.

It’s likely that vaccination will become a condition of entry for some countries. Qantas boss Alan Joyce said at the end of last year that passengers would have to prove they have been inoculated to fly on both international and domestic flights. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison also indicated that vaccination may be an entry requirement into Australia moving forward.

Several ‘health passports’ are being trialled, including smartphone apps that enable users to upload details of lab-based testing and vaccinations.

IATA, The Common Trust Network and IBM are all at various stages of developing apps and passes that could be used to store health data in order to cross borders, access events or simply use public transport.

The British government has recently invested in a digital health passport developed by biometrics firm iProov and cybersecurity group Mvine and will be rolled out as a free smartphone app. The trial will be managed by local authority public health directors in yet to be agreed locations in the United Kingdom and hopes to show that digital health passports can help the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) keep track of people that have received the first or second vaccine dose. Over the long-term, this information could presumably be used towards restriction-free travel.

Of course there are many hurdles to overcome, particularly data-privacy concerns. The viability of vaccinations may also be a challenge given that each jab offers differing levels of protection.

According to United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres, aviation will play a critical role in lifting the world to recovery from Covid-19 and requires. “Let’s ensure it receives the support it needs to keep the world’s nations connected and united,” he said.

“This support starts with consistent, well-reasoned, scientifically supported policies to manage the risks of Covid-19 and travel,” added de Juniac. “This is the antithesis of what we witnessed over the holiday period. Our top priority for 2021 is to change that.”

Hopefully, in time, a safe level playing field will be found and we can all get back to a restriction-free existence. Now wouldn’t that be nice?


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