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Nascent recovery in international travel demand set back by Omicron

SYDNEY : A nascent recovery in Asia-Pacific international travel demand has been set back by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus as governments tighten rules, but airline bosses say they hope any backward moves will be short-lived.

International passenger traffic in the Asia-Pacific was at just 5.4 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in October, the lowest of any region globally, but some border rules were relaxed in Australia, Japan, Thailand and Singapore last month before the Omicron variant's discovery.

"We were seeing accelerating openings until Omicron," Mr Campbell Wilson, chief executive of Singapore Airlines' budget offshoot Scoot, said yesterday. "We have seen basically a pause since then. We haven't seen a lot of retrograde steps, though there have been some exceptions."

Airlines have blamed a patchwork of travel rules for depressed international travel demand, which is critical for their return to profit, and Omicron appears to be worsening that problem.

Japan has banned foreigners, the United States is requiring a Covid-19 test 24 hours before flying, and travellers to Singapore now must be tested daily for seven days after arrival.

The Omicron variant's appearance follows a downturn in travel after the Delta variant, first discovered in India, spread globally. But vaccination rates have since risen and health experts are gauging whether the latest variant causes illness as severe as others.

"We still haven't figured out whether this is a spanner in the works or a fly in the ointment," Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines director-general Subhas Menon said of Omicron.

"From what we see now, it looks more like a fly in the ointment that is still good for using."

Traveller confidence tends to be closely linked to government announcements, said Ms Sue Carter, Asia-Pacific head at booking technology firm Travelport.

"We have seen some searches go down week on week," she said. - REUTERS

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