New variant, same old travel woes

Aircraft passengers have been twice or even three times more likely to catch Covid-19 during a flight since the emergence of the Omicron variant. Photo: Reuters

Covid-19 has taken a big toll on the tourism industry in countries that rely on foreign visitors.  As new waves of infections take hold and ever-changing rules to curtail the spread of the disease are put in place, the overall effect is increased uncertainty—which undoubtedly is harming global tourism. "I'm so frustrated that they keep changing the travel rules," Cath Colbridge of the UK told a reporter. "It's got to the point now that we've given up planning holidays abroad and bought a camper van, so we can at least get away for a few days." 

In this piece, I will offer tidbits of news, some bad and some good. The bad ones pertain to how the Covid-19 variants have been endlessly eating away at the travel and tourism (T&T) industry. The good news is about how, in the midst of the busy travel season, the valiant workers at the Dhaka Airport are making every effort to give the weary travelers a helping hand.

As if the T&T sector hasn't had enough, on December 20 many nations announced new rules on gatherings and travel ahead of the busy holiday season. With the Omicron variant spreading fast across the globe, governments and health organisations, including the WHO, are now advising travelers to exercise caution, and if necessary, to postpone their trips within their respective countries and abroad. Aircraft passengers have been twice or even three times more likely to catch Covid-19 during a flight since the emergence of the Omicron variant.

One hardly needs to be reminded that last summer, as people got vaccinated and started to move about after more than a year of "confinement", the Delta variant put a damper on the travel plans for many, and as governments tried to cope with a resurgence of illnesses, infections, and spread of Covid-19, the initial optimism soon gave way to another round of frustrations.

We are now in the midst of winter and the holidays, which is a busy travel season in the northern hemisphere. The tourism industry is trying to get back on its feet. While talking with many of my associates in Bangladesh, I have gathered that the average tourism revenue is low except for a few large and resourceful resorts.  Locals are travelling, but visitors from abroad have dwindled to a trickle. Eco-tourism is almost nil, and the Hospitality and Tourism Sector (HTS) has been crying out, unsuccessfully, for government support since the pandemic started in March 2020. 

Tourism takes another hit

The new Omicron variant, the changing rules for travel, and the continuing uncertainty are adversely affecting tourism once again. The rules for traveling to each country are different. The quarantine do's and don'ts, the tests, the vaccination requirements, and other protocols and practices have created a chaotic situation. Also at different airports, the local rules are varied. For example, at some locations, you can eat freely and not have your masks on. At others, you need to prove you are vaccinated, and so on.

One of my relatives travelled from Dhaka to Bangkok with his family. The next few days while in quarantine were chaotic for them. There were tests every day, self-isolation, and food was delivered to the hotel room. And all this at your own expense!

Coming back to the plight of the T&T industry in developing countries, research suggests the Covid vaccines used in many parts of the world offer almost no defense against the highly contagious Omicron variant. Even if infections prove mild, the variant's speed will have grave consequences. The big reason is that Omicron appears to spread far more readily than the delta variant that has been dominant worldwide since the summer—Omicron is 25 to 50 percent more transmissible, according to some UK estimates.

The protection offered by the Chinese vaccines will not be enough to prevent Omicron from causing global disruption, said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

"The sheer scale of infection will overwhelm health systems, simply because the denominator will be potentially so big," he said. "If you have a burst of infection worldwide, a shock, what does the world look like on the other side of it? Is it, 'The war is over,' or, 'The war has just entered another phase?' We haven't begun thinking about any of that."

Getting a PCR test in Dhaka

Earlier this month, I was in Dhaka when the American government announced that, effective from December 6, all passengers traveling to the USA would need to have a PCR test done one calendar day before travel.

When I contacted the testing clinic in Dhaka operated by PRAAVA, I was told that if I was travelling, say, on December 15, that I could not get my test on December 14. So, I inquired about taking the test on the evening of December 14 to be within the 24-hour window. But I was informed that PRAAVA did not take any samples after 12 noon. Therefore, I had to take the test on the morning of December 15. When I told them that I planned to fly out on the night of December 15, a staff member asked me to stop by the clinic at Banani to pick up the result at 5pm, just before I was to head out for the airport.

The reason I mention all this in great detail is to relay my belief that the average Bangladeshi (and I later learned many foreign travelers) would be misled by the wrong information that the clinic was operating under. On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, it was announced that the new Global Testing Order shortens the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States. But, there is a big difference between 24 hours and the one calendar day requirement, as the CDC itself clarifies, "A passenger whose flight to the United States is at any time on a Sunday would need to have a negative test taken at any time on Saturday."

At Dhaka airport, a fellow passenger mentioned that we needed to get a stamp from a DGHS official in one remote cubicle. We then realised that the counselor at PRAAVA had failed to inform us of two important steps after the results (in PDF form) were available:  1) Unlike in the USA, a hard copy of every test result must be printed from a government database, and 2) The printout had to be stamped at the DGHS counter in the airport.

There was a long queue at the departure lounge with almost 50 people ahead of me waiting to get a seal on their printout. Compounding our problem, PRAAVA failed to upload our results on the official database. A DGHS staff member directed us to Room 2 at the end of the departure lounge. There, Ashiq and his co-workers were very eager to help, but could not find our test results using either our passport numbers or phone numbers. Ashiq made calls to PRAAVA, and after two hours of running around, we finally got the documentation we needed.


Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist. Two of his new books, "A Fairy Tale" and "Economic Crosscurrents", are available on


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