The omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading around the world almost as fast as are the news reports about it. Official responses to the new strain have been swift and draconian, with governments across the globe shutting down entry or imposing blanket restrictions on travel from countries where the variant was thought to have originated.
In fact, the sudden imposition of travel restrictions did little to slow the spread of omicron, with cases already reported in some 57 countries at latest count, including the US. Soon after the variant was identified by South African scientists, the World Health Organization issued an advisory warning against returning to blanket travel bans.
“The logic of the WHO advice was evident within days of omicron’s identification in South Africa, with its presence already confirmed in all continents,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said. “The ill-advised travel bans are as ineffective as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.”
Instead, travel industry organizations are urging governments to adopt simplified and standardized measures to reopen the world to travel. IATA has issued a policy paper entitled From Restart to Recovery: A Blueprint for Simplifying Travel.
“Over 100,000 COVID-19 related measures have been implemented by governments worldwide,” said Conrad Clifford, IATA’s deputy director general. “This complexity is a barrier to global mobility that is exacerbated by the inconsistencies these measures have created among states.”
In a statement, Clifford goes on to note that, “With over 18 months of pandemic operational experience and traveler feedback we know that a laser-focus on simplicity, predictability and practicality is essential. That is not the reality today.”
IATA is calling on governments to focus in three key areas. The first is simplifying health protocols – including removing travel barriers such as quarantine and testing for vaccinated travelers.
The organization further recommends the use of digital solutions, such as the EU’s Digital COVID Certificate, to process health credentials, and finally, creating and publishing a risk-based approach to COVID-19 countermeasures subject to continuous review.
Similarly the World Travel and Tourism Council is making its own set of recommendations urging governments to adopt standardized digital solutions to address the problem of immunity status. In its report, Digital Solutions for Reviving International Travel, the WTTC has identified four of the most widely used digital COVID vaccination certificates.
In addition to the EU Digital COVID Certificate, the council also recommends the ICAO Visible Digital Seal, DIVOC, and SMART Health Cards as internationally recognized solutions that would give travelers reliable proof of their COVID-19 status, enabling them go anywhere in the world freely and safely.
The WTTC report is critical of what it calls “the existing patchwork of policies and processes, which are not only complex and unsustainable, but also further hinder the recovery of an already struggling sector.”
Early on in the pandemic, the WTTC developed its Safe Travels program aimed at rebuilding consumer confidence in travel to encourage the safe reopening of key sectors of the travel industry.
As a next step, the organization is calling on individual governments to address the lack of a globally coordinated response by creating their own ‘Digital Travel Portal.’ The solution would allow travelers to electronically share their digital COVID vaccination or test certificates with their destination before they begin their journey.
“WTTC has been calling on governments to implement a globally coordinated response since the beginning of the pandemic,” Julia Simpson, president and CEO of the WTTC.
“It is governments’ responsibility to ensure there is a safe, secure, simple and digital system in place to restore international mobility. WTTC is recommending a single global portal that recognizes the main digital passes currently in use worldwide and acts as a one stop shop for travelers and governments.”
The business travel community has been especially hard hit by the ongoing pandemic, according to Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the Global Business Travel Association. “Travel bans, border closures and quarantines have greatly impacted business travel and therefore the world’s ability to do business,” Neufang said.
In its latest survey of corporate travel managers, GBTA found that business travel worldwide is predicted to surge 38 percent in 2022 over this year’s total, and be fully recovered by the end of 2024, a year earlier than previous projections. However, the uncertainty generated by COVID-19 variants and inconsistent government responses to them continues to be a drag on recovery, according to the research.
“As we continue to take a long view of COVID-19, the random opening and closing of global borders has not been shown to be neither a factor in mitigating the virus nor sustainable due to increased impacts to economic and supply chain recovery,” she added.
GBTA has joined other travel industry organizations in urging governments to focus on vaccination or recovery status and individual traveler risk, instead of broad-reaching travel restrictions or border shutdowns.
The association is calling for more consistent guidance worldwide when new COVID-19 developments could restrict or ban travel.
However GBTA continues to support current mitigation strategies, particularly on air travel, such as encouraging higher vaccination rates, increasing testing, and enforcing mask requirements on public transportation.
“We encourage countries and governments to work collectively to pursue consistent policies that avoid new travel bans, and instead to focus on individual traveler risk, increased vaccinations and ongoing testing protocols,” Neufang said. “The more people who are vaccinated and with appropriate testing protocols in place, the more safely and consistently business travel can return.”