The Star Malaysia - Star2
Barrier-free travel for all
It’s time to accelerate the easing of travel restrictions as the world learns to live with Covid-19.
AS Covid-19 gradually moves to the endemic stage, tourism experts have called for the easing of travel restrictions. Such a move, they said, will help the battered industry recover as we enter the third year of living with the virus.
One of the most vocal proponents of this has been the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
“When it comes to stopping the spread of new virus variants, blanket travel restrictions are simply counterproductive,” said UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili in a statement.
According to Pololikashvili, blanket travel restrictions are detrimental to the recovery of global tourism.
“In fact, by cutting the lifeline of tourism, these restrictions do more harm than good, especially in destinations reliant on international tourists for jobs, economic well-being and sustainable change,” he explained.
Interestingly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently also called for restrictions on travel to be lifted or eased.
Citing the varied global responses to the emergence of the of the Omicron variant of Covid19, WHO has reiterated that restrictions on travel are not effective in suppressing the international spread.
The 10th meeting of the WHO’S International Health Regulations Emergency Committee recently expressed concern that such measures can cause economic and social harm.
Travel restrictions may also discourage transparent and rapid reporting of emerging variants of concern, it said in a statement.
Over on the aviation side, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments to accelerate relaxation of travel restrictions.
IATA director-general Willie Walsh said there’s scientific evidence that restrictions don’t help curb the spread of the virus.
“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travellers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of Covid-19. The measures have not worked.
“Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations,” he said.
Walsh added that resources allocated for testing requirements for travellers are better spent elsewhere.
“The billions spent testing travellers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems,” he explained.
IATA called for removing all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a Who-approved vaccine, and enabling quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travellers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result.
Walsh also pointed out a recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health which demonstrated the limited impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron.
“While the study is specific to Britain, it is clear that travel restrictions in any part of the world have had little impact on the spread of Covid-19, including the Omicron variant. Britain, France and Switzerland have recognised this and are among the first to begin removing travel measures. More governments need to follow their lead.
“Accelerating the removal of travel restrictions will be a major step towards living with the virus,” said Walsh.
Reopen the region
Closer to home, Malaysian travel stakeholders are proposing the reopening of borders for travellers in the region.
Asean Tourism Research Association (ATRA) secretary-general Prof Datuk Seri Dr Victor Wee highlighted that immunisation programmes in Asean countries have allowed the resumption of business and domestic travel.
In an opinion piece, he said containing the virus is a “delicate task” – but it’s vital to resume the tourism landscape.
“The Asean countries have adopted the endemic approach of learning to live with Covid-19 and resigning to the fact that the virus will not disappear any time soon.
“Regardless, Asean countries must make the necessary preparations for the resumption of international travel,” he said.
Prof Wee, who is also a tourism academic at Taylor’s University, said safe and predictable cross-border travel is important.
“Right now, international travel is hindered by constant changes in travel restrictions and requirements as they are being updated by the authorities.
“One of the problems affecting cross-border travel in the Asean region is the lack of clarity on entry requirements of travellers from neighbouring countries.
“What is needed is coordination and harmonisation for border crossing and regional integration within Asean to restart travel and cross-border economic activity,” he explained.
Other priority measures include removing onerous procedures (easing or doing away with quarantine requirements) and having more flexibility when it comes to travel arrangements.
Prof Wee also stressed that digitalisation will be important moving forward.
“For the tourism workforce to be future-ready, agencies connected with tourism should use the lull period during the pandemic to host free online webinars and provide training for tourism stakeholders and entrepreneurs, focusing on digital skills and post-crisis reinvention,” he said.