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News / Business

Pandemic travel has reached a tipping point

By Allison Smith, Bloomberg News
Published: October 17, 2022, 8:30am

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are losing their importance for world travelers. There are now more countries and territories — 118, according to Kayak.com data — that welcome any U.S. traveler without restrictions. Of the 109 destinations that still require testing, quarantines, or both for unvaccinated travelers, 17 don’t allow U.S. tourism anyway.

It’s a welcome turn for a global tourism economy that’s been hammered by the novel coronavirus, and a bright note for those looking for signs of the pandemic’s end.

The pullback in restrictions is “an acknowledgment that we’re in a new phase of this pandemic, where things are more stable,” says infectious disease epidemiologist David Dowdy of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As recently as Sept. 14, the head of the World Health Organization declared that “ the end is in sight” for the pandemic.

“The world increasingly wants to move past this point where COVID is overpowering our daily lives with everything we’re doing,” says Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Japan has begun accepting vaccinated visitors from 68 countries without visas, ending almost three years of strict travel curbs that kept tourists out of the island nation; unvaccinated visitors will still need to test negative and possibly quarantine upon arrival.

Bhutan, a top destination for its awe-inspiring mountain views, spicy cuisine and gilded temples, entirely scrapped its pandemic-related entry requirements for international tourists as of Sept. 23, adding to the 30 destinations that ended testing and isolation mandates over the last seven weeks. The Himalayan kingdom joins Canada, the Bahamas and New Zealand, which also rolled back requirements for travelers recently.

Aside from mainland China, which remains off-limits for tourists, the U.S., the Philippines and Indonesia are now the world’s only major tourist markets whose borders are fully shut to unvaccinated visitors, barring age or health-related exceptions.

Experts attribute the changes in policy to a relative stabilization in death rates, despite a surge in infections due to the omicron subvariant known as BA.5. That’s a result of mass-scale vaccination and booster campaigns, they say.

“We’re in a very different place today than we were two years ago, or even one year ago,” says Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “We have a deeper understanding about this virus, how we can manage it better, and we have several vaccines that are increasingly available, which help alleviate concerns about COVID.”

Having a vaccine is, of course, still the safest and smoothest way to see the world. It opens American passports to a potential 190 stamps without any testing complications.

As a result of loosened restrictions, wanderlust has made a roaring comeback. Almost two-thirds of Americans are planning a trip during the next three months, despite sky-high prices and operational turbulence in an industry that continues to grapple with the lingering effects of COVID. For example, international air capacity is nearly 12% below where it was at this time in 2019, according to Official Airline Guides, a global travel data provider, whereas domestic capacity has nearly caught up around the world.

“Countries which are heavily dependent on inbound tourists are seeing a slower rebound,” said Charuta Fadnis, vice president of research and product strategy at Phocuswright, a travel industry research company, in an email. “For example, many markets in Asia rely heavily on Chinese travelers, and China’s restrictions on outbound travel impact the pace of their recovery.”

Phocuswright projects that China’s travel market won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. Still, Fadnis said Southeast Asia is “showing a good pace of recovery,” while Japan’s reopening would “provide a boost to the region.”

With much of Asia only starting to reopen, vacation-starved tourists have looked funneled elsewhere. “This was really the summer of Europe,” says Josh Geller, a travel adviser at New York-based agency Embark Beyond. “We had endless clients in the South of France and Italy,” and those destinations “are still hot.”

Even as temperatures cool, and travelers would normally seek warm-weather destinations, Geller says clients are still booking European vacations. He predicts that next fall and winter, Asia will overtake Europe as the top destination for jet-setters.

Client bookings have doubled compared to 2019 levels, says Geller. And now that Japan has reopened, he’s seeing pent-up demand to visit Asia in general. “Clients will call me saying, ‘I heard Japan is opening up; what do you think about a trip to Vietnam?’” he says.

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Although removing vaccination requirements has taken some of the guesswork out of travel, Casey Hanisko, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, cautions that many operators and companies the trade group partners with are still requiring travelers to show proof of vaccination or negative test results to book places to stay or such activities as guided tours. And the onus, says Hanisko, is now on individuals to travel responsibly.

“Effectively, it’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” says Geller, referring to the prospect of tourists traveling with COVID. Clients generally seem to be using judgment, he says, noting that those showing symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19 are rescheduling trips.

With winter on the way, the seasonal character of most respiratory viruses makes it important to be a good human, regardless of official border policies. “This virus is still mutating. It’s still a threat,” says Wallace, the Chicago epidemiologist. As reported on Oct. 3, the WHO attributes 9,126 deaths to COVID-19 in the week prior. “It’s really hard to put the horse back in the barn.”