By Orville Williams
Though it is still early days, Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez has acknowledged that uncertainty surrounding the new Omicron Covid-19 variant could threaten the sector’s resurgence by affecting visitor arrivals.
Since the variant was detected by scientists in South Africa last week, many countries – including the US and the UK – have moved to impose travel restrictions on several of their affected counterparts.
The US has restricted incoming travel from eight southern African nations, with President Joe Biden saying the restrictions would give his country time to get more people vaccinated.
The UK has acted similarly, placing 10 African nations on its ‘red list’ for travel, which means people travelling from countries like Botswana, South Africa, and Zambia must quarantine for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
What the UK has also done, importantly, is announce that it will re-introduce the mandatory PCR test requirement for all incoming travellers, a decision that has been met with disappointment from many travel and hospitality entities, including ABTA – the UK’s largest travel association.
A spokesperson for the association also told The Guardian newspaper that, “while [it] understands that this is a rapidly-evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses”.
Fernandez shared similar concerns while speaking to Observer, pointing out that prospective travellers could view the move back to mandatory PCR testing as a sign of potentially more prohibitive regulations.
“Any kind of change will affect us when it comes to the whole aspect of uncertainty. You have [the UK] now moving from [accepting] the rapid test back up to the PCR, and what that does is it creates a level of [uncertainty].
“Somebody travelling might say, ‘suppose I go and take a vacation for a week outside of the UK in beautiful Antigua? At the end of that week, would they [tighten the restrictions] further to say when I come back I will [need to] quarantine for a week or two?’” he explained.
“That is what is going to create the concern for travellers, whether or not it’s going to end here or if they’re going to move the protocols to a higher standard – in other words, going back to quarantining and so on.
“That kind of uncertainty, I think, is what will create a problem for us [and] for all of us that depend on tourism.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants including the Delta, nor whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, such as the Delta.
The tourism minister added that the outcome of scientific analysis of the variant could determine how bad the impact will be on the world and the tourism sector in particular.
“I think it will have an effect for sure. It might be a little bit early for us to confirm whether or not it will be a big effect, because they’re still trying to establish if the effects of this new variant are mild – especially with vaccinated people – or if they’re more severe. That will determine whether or not it’ll have a big negative effect on us.
“Let us hope that in another week or so, we can get confirmation that the [Omicron] variant will not be as severe as Delta [for example],” the minister added.
Since Omicron was first detected in South Africa, a rising number of countries – including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and the UK – have reported at least one case.