The newly-discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus — along with the raft of travel restrictions swiftly imposed — is threatening to upend Asia-Pacific carriers’ recovery momentum.
The new variant — first identified in southern Africa and labelled a “variant of concern by the World Health Organization — comes as carriers in the region begin to see the first shoots of post-pandemic recovery, with border restrictions gradually relaxing.
As scientists and health officials scramble to make sense of the new variant, countries in the region moved quickly to ban travel from a number of African nations, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
But an initial series of travel bans is fast evolving into more wide-ranging restrictions that could impact the industry’s recovery prospects, especially amid the year-end travel season.
On 28 November, the Singapore government announced it was indefinitely postponing quarantine-free arrangements with three countries in the Middle East — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The city-state was to have launched its Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme to the three countries, which allows fully-vaccinated travellers to enter without quarantine, from 6 December.
The “precautionary move to reduce the risks of importation and spread of the Omicron variant to Singapore” takes into account the three country’s “proximity as transport nodes to the affected countries”, says Singapore’s health ministry.
It adds that it is reviewing other border measures and “will announce more details soon”.
The VTL scheme, which has been launched to 27 countries as of 26 November, is seen as a key step in Singapore’s efforts to restart safe international travel. Flag carrier Singapore Airlines previously stated that the scheme was pivotal in lifting demand since the roll-out in September.
Attempts to pare back the VTL scheme — or even completely suspend it — could throw a spanner in the works, both for SIA’s recovery plans, as well as Singapore’s battered tourism sector.
QUARANTINE, TESTING BACK ON THE CARDS
Other countries in the region too are mulling tightening general travel requirements.
Australia, which in early November cracked open its borders for international travellers to enter, announced mandatory 72-hour quarantine for all international travellers into Sydney and Melbourne.
Already, the country reported two cases of travellers testing positive for the Omicron variant on 28 November.
Thailand, meanwhile, is reportedly mulling the reintroduction of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for all fully-vaccinated travellers into the country. It is a policy reversal days after the country announced it was substituting the PCR test with a cheaper and faster Antigen Rapid Test for travellers.
The country, heavily dependent on tourism, opened its borders to all fully-vaccinated travellers on 1 November.
As for Japan, which still does not allow leisure travellers into the country, its government announced a ban on all foreign business travellers and students. The latest development is expected to lengthen an already extended plan to reopen borders.
Other countries, like South Korea, are mulling adding more countries — beyond southern African nations — to their lists of high-risk countries.
While little is known about the full impact of the new variant, it seems likely that airlines in the region will see their recovery hopes dimmed - if not dashed entirely - as they face yet another bleak winter.