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Thailand victim of overreaction to Omicron

A Singapore-based journalist recounts her trip to Thailand and how the Omicron variant has changed the world of travel.

In just three weeks since the new variant of the coronavirus was reported, the travel industry and the tourist experience have suffered damage, writes Raini Hamdi, a business and travel journalist.

Arriving in Thailand from Singapore on November 30 felt like I was taking the last train to my destination as countries began announcing border closures and new restrictions to stem the spread.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the immigration services let me through after checking all my documents, including the negative result of the PCR test carried out before departure, the certificate of vaccination, the Covid-19 insurance and booking one night in a quarantine hotel, with a PCR test on arrival.

It was complicated paperwork.

But once I left the airport, I felt a great sense of satisfaction, like I had just finished an obstacle course.

Others weren’t so lucky.

Wrisney Tan, director of a Singapore-based consultancy firm specializing in investor relations and financial media, had planned to take her two children to the Maldives in March as Singapore opened a “Vaccinated Travel Pathway”. travel lane – VTL) with the Maldives from December 16.

But since countries have changed their rules since Omicron made its appearance, she postponed her trip to June.

Caught off guard, she feared costs would rise astronomically, with countries likely to request more PCR and antigen tests before allowing entry.

“I have also read reports of tourists in South Korea who were surprised by the sudden changes in Covid-19 regulations and who were refused entry to restaurants, among other things.

It’s the last thing I want to happen on my vacation.”

Are stricter travel rules really necessary?

Passenger screening at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Photo: Suvarnabhumi Airport

Omicron is the first test of what countries would do if faced with a concerning new variant when they have already vaccinated people, learned lessons on how to treat Covid-19 and said they will learn how to live with the virus.

Many have failed miserably and reacted prematurely, even as scientists continue to try to determine the seriousness of Omicron since it was first reported to the World Health Organization on November 24.

Israel and Japan were the quickest to buy time, banning foreign travel altogether.

“It’s an overreaction,” Air Asia Group chief executive Tony Fernandes said in a virtual speech Dec. 2 at the Bangkok Post’s 2021 International Forum.

“We don’t know anything about this variant yet. Let’s wait and see before taking the plunge.”

Mr. Fernandes pointed out that the world is better equipped to deal with Omicron than previous strains.

“There are Merck pills, and Pfizer pills coming out.

We are vaccinated. Recalls are available,” he said.

“Governments must use common sense and see what is necessary.”

See: Air Asia boss slams overreaction to Omicron threat

Today, travelers have to navigate a new set of rules: ban on visiting certain places, additional PCR tests, reinstatement of quarantine, reorganization of green, yellow and red lists or categories, etc.

Confusion reigned when South Korea announced a 10-day quarantine for all incoming travelers from December 3.

She then recanted somewhat, saying vaccinated passengers from Singapore were the exception, easing the agony of those with reservations.

Malaysia also announced on December 2 a temporary ban for travelers from 26 countries as part of its Langkawi tourism bubble.

The next day, she clarified that the ban only affected eight African countries.

It’s a sad turnaround from two months ago when there were strong signs that the world, except fortress China, was taking steps to get travel back to normal.

Governments felt that tightening entry rules in the wake of Omicron would “buy time”, that it was a “temporary and necessary” measure until clear information about the variant.

But if countries change entry rules at short notice, travel and tourism will be in big trouble.

Uncertainty stifles travel recovery

The reality is that it may take longer to confirm the true color of Omicron, although health experts are leaning towards the idea that Omicron is highly transmissible, but there is no no need to panic.

American scientist Anthony Fauci said on December 7 that Omicron “is almost certainly no more severe than Delta” and that “there is some evidence to suggest it may even be less severe.”

Fauci says the best-case scenario is for a more transmissible virus that doesn’t cause more severe illness or lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.

But can countries remain closed pending the final verdict?

Not really. The WHO said vaccination, not travel restrictions, was key in the fight against Omicron.

Open borders can close overnight

The damage is done. No industry likes uncertainty, but for travel and tourism, uncertainty is a real plague.

A trip already has too many intertwined factors, a flight delay or cancellation can affect an entire value chain including transfers, hotels, excursions, etc.

The fact is, Omicron can only undo carefully laid travel plans if countries let it.

The reconciliations show the ramifications that a rule change can have.

Stephan Roemer, CEO of Diethelm Travel Group, was fortunately already in the air when his departure point, Switzerland, was declared a ‘red’ country, despite being ‘yellow’ when he boarded his destination flight. from the Philippines.

Had he left the next day, it would have negated five months of efforts to obtain the necessary exemption permit for his visa.

Thailand, which reopened on November 1, was set to replace PCR tests with antigen tests, but backed out of the plan because of Omicron.

However, the country is an exception in that it has no intention of undoing a long and arduous process of welcoming tourists safely.

It simply cannot afford another year of tourism collapse.

See: Omicron variant will not affect tourism in Thailand

In 2019, nearly 40 million foreign tourists visited Thailand, generating nearly two trillion baht (52 billion euros), or 11% of gross domestic product.

Travel and tourism employed more than 7 million people, or 20% of total employment, a Bank of Thailand document shows.

Even so, bookings have slowed “significantly”, Mr Roemer said.

“We only have about a third of the volume of daily bookings that we had in mid-November.

At the end of last week (December 3), we even received a few cancellations,” he added.

Clearly the global backlash and new restrictions have dampened overall travel demand to Thailand.

“It’s frustrating…Governments are scaring people and risking even greater tragedy because people have run out of financial resources,” Roemer added.

Previously, business was picking up well, which allowed Mr Roemer to recall furloughed staff last month.

Since the start of the pandemic, its strategy has been to keep staff on the minimum wage, which covers social benefits and insurance, while allowing them to take other middle jobs.

Last month, the workforce in its Thailand operation was back to 30% of 2019 levels.

Plans to boost that figure to 50% from this month are now on the back burner due to the slowdown in bookings.

While countries can’t resuscitate travel on their own, he highlights how those that stayed open saved jobs.

“The Maldives was the first destination to return to profitability, with all of our staff back to work.

We have even increased our workforce by 10%; then Sri Lanka, where more than 50% of the workforce has returned; and Thailand, with 30 percent,” Roemer said.

Asian Trails, another Thailand-based incoming travel company, has also seen a slowdown in new bookings for the kingdom.

“I hope the Thai government will persevere and keep the borders open,” said group CEO Laurent Kuenzle.

“Most travelers will accept a PCR test before departure and a rapid test on arrival.

Complicated paperwork should be abolished.”

Crowds are not a concern, contrary to the new rules

Thailand's main airport to receive 30,000 passengers on November 1

Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

It was sad to see Changi and Suvarnabhumi airports largely empty.

Even my Singapore Airlines flight to Bangkok was only 30% full.

In downtown Bangkok and in shopping malls, tourists were few.

Governments that overreact to Omicron seem to forget that arrival numbers such as 20, 30 or 40 million visitors are a thing of the past and that it will take time to rebuild tourism.

The limiting factor could be travelers’ confidence that traveling remains a certainty and the risk of getting caught somewhere is miniscule.

Thailand, Southeast Asia’s top destination, saw just 133,061 arrivals last month, down from 3 million tourists a month before the crisis.

With its liberal approach, the country is already struggling to win back visitors, what about other destinations?

If the pent-up demand for leisure travel is real, the knee-jerk reactions scare people.

Only essential business travel and trips to see family will occur if this open-and-close dynamic persists whenever a new variant arises.

Andreas Birnik, founder of the Singapore-based Modern Wine Group, had not seen his aging parents in Sweden for two and a half years.

When he was finally able to do so, he went to see them as planned on December 2.

But he fears Singapore could reimpose quarantine or introduce new travel restrictions when he is due to return next month.

“With Covid-19, everything is in motion.

You can fly with one set of rules and come back with totally different rules,” Birnik said.

Given the huge costs to the tourism sector, jobs and more, perhaps it’s time for countries to commit to stop changing travel rules at short notice.


Raini Hamdi is a Singapore-based business journalist known for her reporting on Asian hospitality, travel and tourism.

Source: Channel News Asia

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