• The discovery of the Omicron COVID-19 variant has shaken the travel and tourism industry, especially in countries that were struck with travel restrictions such as those in Southern Africa.
  • Many business leaders are hoping to return to in-person engagements, but ever changing regulations and travel policies remain the biggest challenges to date.
  • Here's what you need to know about Omicron and traveling safely this holiday season.

Tourism and travel industries have been once again disrupted by the discovery of the newest COVID-19 Omicron variant. With uncertainty running high, some political decision-makers implemented travel restrictions such as the red-listing of Southern African countries, while scientists are working tirelessly to understand what we do and don't know about Omicron and how to navigate it.

With the holiday season approaching, air travel in the US was expected to triple compared to 2020, but the Omicron variant could impact that number.

What we know about the COVID-19 Omicron variant so far

  • Transmissibility and severity of disease

A study by Discovery Health shows:

1. Pfizer vaccine's effectiveness against infection dropped down to about 30% for the Omicron variant, compared with about 80% against the variants before Omicron.

2. But, there was a 70% protection against hospital admission because of COVID-19 in the population examined (a decrease from 90% observed during the previous surge of delta in South Africa), indicating the vaccine is still working well to keep people out of the hospital.

3. Yet, none of us are safe until all of us are safe – the vaccine needs to be administered to as many people as possible globally. Without vaccine equity, the risk of mutations and a continuing of the pandemic remain a very real threat. According to the WHO, 41 countries have still not managed to vaccinate 10 percent of their population and 98 countries have not reached the 40 percent mark.

  • Prevention

All variants of COVID-19 can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people – prevention is always key. The risk of health system getting overwhelmed particularly demonstrates this.

As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus points out: "I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. It’s not vaccines instead of masks, distancing, ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well."

The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 is to maintain a 6 feet (2 meters) distance from others; wear a mask; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep windows open to increase ventilation when possible; wash hands; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; avoid touching your face; and get vaccinated when it’s available.

The impact of travel restrictions due to Omicron

Looking at restrictions employed in the past year, travel bans will continue to have a negative impact on travel and tourism activity. The uncertainty of ever-changing travel bans has a measurable impact on demand. This is less due to lack of desire of travelers who may otherwise travel regardless of the pandemic, but rather from routes being cancelled.or fear of getting stranded.

The negative impact on the travel and tourism industries of economies that depend on it more heavily, such as those in Southern Africa, is likely to be disproportionate.

Recent lifting of travel restrictions, such as those in the US, had started to reflect an uptick in air travel, boosting confidence from travelers and industry actors alike.

Are travel bans effective in protecting public health?

Travel bans aren't particularly effective in protecting public health while balancing the need for ongoing economic development. Countries should rather take a risk-based approach.

Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”

Is air travel safe?

Air travel itself remains as safe as proven throughout the pandemic. But many countries still have testing and vaccination requirements in place to protect against COVID-19 transmission throughout the entire travel process.

How are businesses impacted from a changed travel industry?

Travel and tourism businesses will feel an ongoing impact on the industry: There have been multiple reports on travel restrictions due to the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, putting the travel and tourism industry at an immense disadvantage and damaging or shutting down operations of small- and medium-sized business in particular.

As for other businesses, as much as virtual has served the global economy for the last two years, there are tremendous benefits to in-person engagements. Businesses are eager to restart their corporate travel. At the same time the landscape is disjointed and there remains a lack of global harmonization. Efforts by the World Economic Forum and others continue in the hope of bringing greater certainty to this environment, in particular through the use of frameworks and digital tools.

What are the biggest challenges businesses face?

Ever changing regulations and travel policies are the biggest challenges to date. This, at best of times, can be chaotic to navigate, never mind for businesses with global operations that need to keep staff safe and secure amid COVID-19.

There’s also a backlash as flight shaming has become a reaction to traveling during a global pandemic. The cost of traveling has also increased tremendously due to a reduction in frequency of flights, for which travel bans are one cause, as well as the increased cost of COVID-19 testing prior to travel.

What can businesses do to adjust to recent developments and to prepare for next year?

Business travel will recover slowest as corporations and teams have adapted to virtual gatherings, however in most cases executives are ready to return to in-person convening and meeting with partners and clients. But, quarantine measures in various geographies continue to hinder this return to in-person business for many companies.

Business travel spending is the highest in many destinations, so it is critical to global economic development – businesses should consider supporting the return to travel in a responsible manner.

The World Economic Forum is revising its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report to better account for identifying and mitigating risks from climate, health and socio-economic factors. The pandemic has in many ways amplified and highlighted the importance of sustainability and resilience for future competitiveness in travel and tourism.

Businesses with major corporate travel budgets should be applying similar thinking into their strategies, and serve as early adopters of more resilient and sustainable practices. Aviation and tourism continues to deliver benefits to global business and economies, but should be undertaken in a way that considers public health priorities, as well as climate imperatives.