Can a new strain of Covid-19 and the invasion of Ukraine stop the return of travel?

Another strain of Covid threatens a fragile travel industry recovery. Russia has just invaded Ukraine. But in global tourism hotspots, officials are hoping for a bright future and are carefully monitoring advance bookings.

After a pandemic that lasted longer than expected, it’s a punch that airlines, rental car companies, cruise lines and hotels don’t need. And, of course, neither are travelers, busy thinking about spring break and summer break.

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The bad news: BA.2, a more contagious omicron variant, will almost certainly affect some popular destinations. The same will apply to Russia’s military action against Ukraine. The good news: For now, it looks like the repercussions won’t be severe and, in some cases, may not even be noticeable. Interviews with tourism executives and travelers in a popular destination suggest the resumption of travel could be real this time.

How will BA.2 affect tourism?

BA.2, which the World Health Organization classifies as a concern variant, is on travelers’ radar. Although cases of omicron have declined, as have many restrictions, health officials fear that BA.2, which is 30% more transmissible than omicron, may begin to spread, triggering a new wave of outbreaks. infections.

If BA.2 takes off – and it’s still too early to say whether it will – it could lead to another round of travel restrictions and closures. If this happens during the summer vacation planning season in March and April, it could hurt reservations. The most vulnerable markets are international, where flight demand is already depressed.

How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affect travel?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already caused hijackings and flight cancellations. Just yesterday, the UK banned Aeroflot from its airspace and Delta Air Lines suspended its codeshare agreement with the Russian airline. In retaliation, Russia banned British Airways. Cruise lines with Russian itineraries this summer have started canceling those calls. These disruptions were to be expected.

But how will the invasion play out in the long run? For tourism, the effects are negligible. Russia is not a popular destination for American tourists. Although it is difficult to obtain reliable statistics on incoming American tourists, most sources indicate that fewer than 100,000 American tourists have visited Russia during the pandemic, and the number of visitors is well below its peak. of approximately 200,000 visitors reached in 2017.

Some American travelers are in “wait and see” mode

Despite the double threat to the tourism recovery, travelers generally seem optimistic about the future. The latest reading on travel sentiment by the Morning consultation suggests that 63% of Americans are comfortable going on vacation, unchanged from the previous week. That’s just 2 percentage points shy of the tracker’s all-time high, set on July 4.

Similarly, 45% of Americans said they were comfortable flying within the country, up 1 point from the previous week. Ease of traveling abroad also increased by one point, to 32%. This is roughly on par with travel sentiment in October, just before the emergence of the omicron variant.

But not all Americans are in wait-and-see mode. Cathy Lussiana, a retired human resources manager from Montrose, Colorado, reports that some Americans are already traveling. She is on tour in Southern Africa and has met many Americans on her trip. A guide to Thornybush Game Reserve at Kruger Park said some American travelers did not wait for the “everything is clear” from the State Department. They are leaving now.

“In South Africa, before Covid, tourists usually came from the UK first, then Germany, then America,” she says. “As tourism reopens, Americans are now in the lead.”

In South Africa, a long wait for visitors

But the wait has been long for visitors to return, and it seems to be getting longer. The return of tourism to places like Cape Town cannot come soon enough. Lizanne Gomes, owner of Cape Town Jeep Tourssays its business is still down 80% from pre-Covid.

“We’re still waiting for the big meetings and incentive groups to come back, but they’ve been slow to come back,” she says.

Marine biologist Justin Blake, who works with Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town to offer exclusive tours of Atlantic Seal Colonies and Cape Kelp Forests, has moved most of its business online. He now offers virtual sea life tours, but says with the return of tourism he is open to doing more real-life experiences.

“I just woke up to a new booking this morning,” he says. “But it’s more of a niche tour, tailored to people’s interests.”

Sabu Siyakha, owner of Ubizo Events and Tours, says there are signs of life, despite BA.2 and the invasion of Ukraine. His company offers guided tours of Langa, a township near Cape Town. The full-day experience includes art galleries, music, and cultural heritage. For a long time – a very long time – Cape Town was a “ghost town”, he says.

Things are coming back now. Returning slowly. I’m picking up little by little,” he said.

“It was an interesting race”, recognizes Raymond Endean, managing partner of the Latitude Aparthotel by Totalstay in Cape Town.

His property, which opened just before the pandemic, has seen business rise steadily despite wave after wave of infections. The last two months have been particularly promising – the busiest ever.

“It will be interesting to see how the whole year goes,” he adds.

What future for tourism?

At Nova Constantia Boutique Residence in the vineyards of Constantia, we feel that a recovery is well under way, despite the problems with BA.2 and Ukraine. On a recent Saturday morning, the boutique hotel was operating at full capacity. Staff were fully masked and practicing social distancing in line with South African guidelines.

“It will be nice when we don’t have to wear masks anymore,” a staff member told me.

The wine harvest begins in April and the game drive season begins in late summer, so there are plenty of opportunities to make up for lost time.

It may take some time for the most important questions to be answered. And these are: How will BA.2 affect tourism in the long term? And how will the invasion of Ukraine affect visitors to Europe beyond this summer? These questions apply not only to South Africa but to other destinations. Travelers will need to weigh the pervasive risks of visiting a place against the benefits of seeing an exotic destination like South Africa’s wine country.

And we’ll find out what they decide soon enough.

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