‘Jobs at stake’: Asia ‘catching up’ in post-COVID travel | aviation

The head of the global airline says the region is falling behind the rest of the world in resuming international travel.

Asia-Pacific countries are “playing catch-up” on resuming international travel and should ease remaining pandemic-related border restrictions without delay, the head of the global aviation industry representation said on Tuesday.

Speaking at an aviation summit in Singapore, Willie Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said the region had fallen behind the global trend despite “growing momentum” to lift restrictions.

“The demand for travel is clear. Once lockdown is eased, there is an immediate positive response from travelers,” Walsh said in a keynote speech at the Changi Aviation Summit. “It is therefore crucial that all stakeholders, including governments, are well prepared for the restart. We cannot delay. Jobs are at stake and people want to travel.”

Walsh said air travel in the region in the first quarter of 2022 was just 17 percent of 2019 levels — compared to about 60 percent in Europe, North America and Latin America.

“Things are improving, but they won’t improve fast enough unless countries follow the initiative of countries like Singapore and lift testing and quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers,” said Walsh, previously CEO of British Airways and Ireland Aer Lingus operated .

Willie Walsh
IATA Director-General Willie Walsh has called on Asia-Pacific governments to lift their remaining pandemic border restrictions [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Walsh said governments should lift all restrictions on vaccinated travelers and quarantine and COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated arrivals in most destinations with high levels of population immunity.

“Things are improving, but they won’t improve fast enough unless countries follow the initiative of countries like Singapore and lift testing and quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers,” he said. “Science supports these initiatives.”

While most countries in the region have welcomed the return of tourists in recent months, many destinations still require a COVID test, putting travelers at risk of missing their flight or being quarantined.

Walsh singled out China and Japan, which along with Taiwan were the last holdouts in large-scale travel, as big holes in the region’s recovery.

Tokyo on Tuesday said it would allow limited package tours starting this month as a “test” to gather information for a broader resumption of tourism at an unspecified later date. Beijing, which has doubled down on its ultra-tight “Dynamic Zero COVID” policy to eliminate the virus, has given no indication of when China might reopen its borders.

“As long as the Chinese government continues to adhere to its zero-COVID approach, reopening the country’s borders is hard to imagine. This will delay the region’s full recovery,” Walsh said.

“Although Japan has taken steps to allow travel, there is no clear plan for Japan to reopen to all inbound visitors or tourists. More needs to be done to further ease travel restrictions, starting with lifting quarantine for all vaccinated travelers and lifting both airport testing on arrival and the daily cap on arrival. I urge the Japanese government to take bolder steps to restore and open up the country’s borders.”

“Cannot be replaced”

Gary Bowerman, director of Kuala Lumpur-based travel and tourism research firm Check-in Asia, said the region’s slow recovery underscores the outsize importance of China and Japan to travel and tourism.

“China, for example, provided ASEAN with 32 million visitors in 2019, almost a quarter of all visitors. That attendance simply cannot be replaced,” Bowerman told Al Jazeera.

“Southeast Asia and Australia are heavily dependent on air traffic from China and Northeast Asia. For example, until China reopens, the recovery in Southeast Asia has a much lower ceiling. The region’s aviation ecosystem badly needs China because it combines a mix of Chinese carriers, national carriers and low-cost carriers.”

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