Omicron’s Toll On Travel (So Far)
This is an article “Omicron’s Toll On Travel (So Far)” by Marc Pulisci
Just as things started looking up for travel in late 2021, the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus once again stalled the airline and hospitality industries. Along with the drop in bookings and occupancy, new restrictions have been placed over the past weeks across the globe to keep the variant at bay.
For two years without much silver lining, the pandemic has already taken a significant toll on travel sectors, with a 20% drop from a projected $712 billion to $568 billion in 2020. Worse, European travel dipped from revenues of $212 billion to $124 billion during the same period.
With the current travel restrictions in place, the elusive glimmer of hope for travelers remains dim. And not because of fear of the Omicron variant, but due to more chances of flight cancellations or passengers being stranded in airports.
The South Africa problem
Among the countries that consider travel a linchpin of their economy include South Africa, where the variant was first identified. Eighteen percent of the country's total employment stems from travel sectors affecting 2.9 million employees.
It also didn't help that the country was queued last for vaccines while being the first to be sanctioned for travel regulations. To date, current figures show that 47% of the global population already had two full-dose jabs, yet only 7% of Africans are currently immunized.
Part of the problem also stems from supply chain hurdles that only allowed vaccines to enter the country last year, while most of the world was already well underway with inoculation drives since the latter part of 2020.
However, it doesn't necessarily mean that the Omicron virus stemmed from South Africa. It just so happens that researchers from that nation were first to identify it. Reports say that at least 24 countries already had traces of the variant from its discovery. Yet with the staunch travel ban on South Africa, the looming concern among its citizens is heavily confined to public health and the economy.
With less vaccination comes the possibility of new virus mutations in the country, while 56,000 Cape Town hotel bookings were canceled upon the emergence of Omicron. Daily revenue loss has already skyrocketed to R200 million in the city, or roughly $12.6 million.
Omicron's effect on European travel
South Africa is not alone in all the Omicron suffering as more areas in Europe also saw falling figures in transatlantic flights and hotel bookings.
In November, the US government opened up travel to most parts of Europe, which saw an impressive 2% increase from 2019 figures, only to be disrupted by the Omicron variant. A week after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced its emergence, figures dropped to 26% compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
Flights to Europe were on the rise before the November 24 announcement at 22%, only to fall back to 50% below 2019 year-on-year figures. The toll includes shorter flights and leisure trips as governments set new travel rules.
Airlines also canceled flight bookings to the UK in the last week of November, generating a 63% drop from 2019 figures. UK tour operators are saying that most cancellations stem from the fear of Omicron disrupting business travels and how UK travel rules might trap travelers in quarantine. All the airline and hospitality sectors can hope for now is that travel restrictions ease up by summer when travel is at its peak to somehow gain revenue.
Other European countries affected by the travel restrictions include Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, which saw falling numbers in hotel bookings since November. However, Austria and the Netherlands got the brunt of the Omicron impact due to stricter rules on unvaccinated citizens and lockdowns.
Where Omicron is taking travelers
One report from Guesty on short-term rentals in the US showed a significant 22% drop in bookings just one week after the November Omicron announcement. The property management platform also showed that only 51.2% of players in the travel industry believe that 2022 will be the magic year when businesses return to normal.
It has been an up and down battle for many travel companies throughout the health crisis – with lots of rebounds and tumbles along the way. However, many remain optimistic, with even small players seeing new traveler behavior shifting in their favor.
As it turns out, 83.2% of surveyed travelers have preferred short-term rentals over hotel stays since the pandemic. And with the way things are going, that fact is not likely to change, either. Almost a third of all short-term rental businesses saw more bookings in 2021 after the announcement of vaccine efficacy. These figures can mean that once Omicron concerns dissipate, business will soon be booming for smaller hospitality players.
For other sectors, though, things seem bleaker as long as governments continue implementing travel restrictions because of Omicron. Some hotels in the UK are resorting to other solutions, such as moving reservations up during the latter part of 2022. That is for as long as planes continue to fly. Otherwise, grounded flights will affect hotel bookings with no other option but to issue refunds.
Fairer skies ahead
As health experts continue to analyze the effect of Omicron on the public, booster drives continue to gain traction across the globe. Of course, this is the first win that the travel sector can truly call its own, given that travel will be more accessible if the variant brings less severity and everyone is well-protected.
Despite the threat of the Omicron variant, holiday plans last year remained unhindered. Travelers are also showing renewed interest in summer travel this year. Major European travel company Tiu already reported 2.1 million summer bookings since November. However, travelers should expect higher airline fares and hotel rates.
Most importantly, being fully vaccinated is now the most important requirement for most travelers, moving forward. And that's regardless of all the politics and controversy that surround the issue all over the world.