There has been lots of head-scratching since last Friday, when the World Health Organization decided that B.1.1.529, the new COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa, would be named Omicron. In doing so, the WHO decided to skip over two letters in the Greek alphabet: Nu and Xi.
Now why couldn’t they simply call it Omega, which is far easier to pronounce and possesses more of a mystery? Nobody knows exactly what an Omega does, which coincidentally is exactly how the Israeli government is handling the Omicron variant. Shore up the castle, restock the moat and keep everyone away. The CEO of Pfizer says their vaccines should work on the latest variant, while the head of Moderna says his vaccine will be less effective.
Israel, the Light Among Nations, chose to deal with the latest variant by choosing a path before any other government did – ban all tourists. All tourists, young and old, first-degree relatives in Israel be damned. Father passed away and you need to fly in for the funeral. Tough luck. Haven’t seen your grandkids in two years? Too bad – make aliyah and then you can come into the country.
I understand that we need to be safe. It’s obvious to all that a PCR test should be mandatory when one lands in Israel; in fact, all countries should mandate it. But to ban all tourists is a head-scratcher. With an Israeli passport and a vaccination, you must go to quarantine for three days. Or seven days if you’re not vaccinated for any reason. What is the logic behind that? Our health officials want to see if after two negative PCR tests you nonetheless begin to manifest symptoms. Symptoms that never showed up before. One senior health official opined she wasn’t sure the Omicron variant could be detected by the present PCR tests. But the only way out of quarantine is with a third PCR test!
Lockdowns and restrictions on personal travel are not natural human states. That is why jail sentences are a punishment for those that do wrong. The travel restrictions imposed by governments were an understandable response when little was known about the coronavirus and vaccines were not available. But there now is a wealth of data, reliable testing and effective vaccines that combined, mean most countries can, and indeed should keep their borders open. There was a sense that the worst is behind us, and there was a cause for some optimism that, with the advent of the holiday season, vaccinated travel would not just return but flourish.
Total global air traffic demand for 2021 is expected to stand at around 40% of 2019 levels, rising to about 60% next year. That is a massive drop. The impact on airline and hotel revenues profitability is going to be dramatic. The world’s airlines are expected to lose over $50 billion by the end of this year. The airline industry is massively in debt and survival has mandated dramatic cost and changes. One needs to look no further than at El Al, whose perpetual struggle to stay afloat is juggled with management impotence and union activists determined to tear the airline apart. Some critics attest it has become a hassidic airline while others state that the service in the air is unapologetically first class. Its juxtaposition of those two views is what makes El Al’s survival so tenuous.
Just when recovery was occurring, the world’s response to the Omicron variant has been a slap in the public’s face. Morocco followed Israel’s lead and shut their borders for two weeks to all tourists. Japan went further and closed off its islands to outsiders for a month. Other countries, such as India and Switzerland chose to only banish some tourists; Israeli passport holders for example are no longer welcome in Mumbai or Zurich.
It is not just those measures; it is the variability and uncertainty of the restrictions that are making life very difficult for tour operators and would-be-travelers. Undoubtedly there is going to be a large minority that cannot wait to get back in the air, but the gap between those willing to fly and those unable to take the leap looks to be enormous. This all points to a changed industry in need of fresh thinking. Internationally, the biggest suppressant of travel is going to be border crossings. You may covet a visit to see your family in Israel, but if Israel shuts the doors, being vaccinated or not plays no role. People’s need to travel has not disappeared; it’s a fundamental need.
Understand how heart-rendering it was to cancel the tickets for hundreds of Americans who were clamoring to visit their offspring and grandchildren for Hanukkah. When told last minute that they could not get on the plane, tears of frustration erupted. They had their boosters, they were willing to be tested and tested again, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. American, Delta, United and El Al turned them away with the honest expression that their hands were tied.
From my personal research I am a proponent of vaccinations. United CEO Scott Kirby took an early public stance on the issue, requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated by the end of September unless they qualified for an exemption. By early October there were only around 200 of United’s 60,000 employees who refused and had to be terminated. Many other airlines now have company mandates and deadlines in place. There will be pockets of resistance.
In the United States for example passengers are not required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test when flying inside the US and the airlines would prefer it to stay that way. The complications of determining who has a qualified exemption and the potential for lengthy queues at airports caused by validating documentation are something neither airlines nor airports want to deal with just as people are showing a strong desire to fly. Airlines flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport now recommend arriving four hours before departure for that reason.
When Israel announced just last month that fully vaccinated tourists could return to Israel sans the arduous approval process through the Exemptions Committee, there was an immediate uptick in bookings for transatlantic travel. Businesspeople resumed making plans again, sending a signal that Israel was now open. With business traffic, you saw the light at the end of the tunnel. While some businesses got seriously hit, others did very well; look at the stock market and some of the company earnings.
Almost overnight there was a whole new generation of people starting to travel and young people starting their careers who desired to travel. The bulk of the Israeli business traveler flies to one continent; in fact, one country receives an overwhelming number of passengers: the US.
NO SURPRISE that for the last 18 months, while Europeans along with other countries were not allowed into the US, Israeli passport holders were. One of the reasons that United Airlines never stopped flying between the two countries – and Delta only stopped flying for a few weeks – was the large amount of Israelis flying into the US. Whether it was for business or more likely for personal reasons, the skies remained open. Yes, there were times when one needed authorization from the Israeli government to leave Israel; other times one needed permission to return. But as vaccines were developed the assumption was that Israel would create a system that protects both its citizens and its commerce.
It comes down to risk versus reward. If demanding a PCR test to board a plane and another when you land with the prerequisite that any tourists wishing to set foot in Israel must be vaccinated, one would argue that Israel’s coverage was over 99% in keeping out corona. Still, with rampant reports of some nefarious individuals forging documents, faking PCR tests and manufacturing vaccine certificates, the disease did enter the country.
But all of the parties found guilty had one thing in common: they all had Israeli passports! None of the high-level delegations or groups from abroad were ever found as carriers. All the congressional visits over the last year were also virus-free. I’m not stating that there were zero tourists who infected Israelis when they were in the country; only that it was never reported.
What is the US’s reaction to Omicron? Initially they banned flights from southern Africa. Citizens of eight countries are not allowed to fly into the US for a fortnight. That is eight countries out of the 195 countries in the world. US President Joe Biden called Omicron a cause for concern, but “not a cause for panic” on Monday, and said he was not considering any widespread lockdown. He urged Americans anew to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and to return to face masks indoors in public settings to slow any spread.
Speaking last week at the White House, Biden said it was inevitable that the new variant would reach the US, but he also said the country has the tools necessary to protect Americans – particularly the approved vaccines and booster shots. The decision to let Europeans in as well as Israelis was left in place. Yes, unlike Israel and, to date, two other countries, the US did not hunker down. For Israel, citizens from all 195 countries are persona non grata.
Whatever optimism Israel’s tourism industry had has now turned to pessimism. As clusters of Omicron have started to appear outside Africa, governments should be reacting. Many countries followed the US example in banning flights from southern Africa. Not a single European country has shut their doors on all tourists.
As quickly as possible we must use the experience of the last two years to move to a coordinated data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine. One suggestion has been tying travel rules to the passenger’s own personal health risk, rather than their country of departure. Following this path would result in increasing the pressure on vaccine-hesitant individuals to get jabbed, and encourage the double-dosed to take a booster shot. Israel actually chose this path when its first requirement to let tourists in was requiring they be fully vaccinated. So why the oscillation?
The Health Ministry has in its arsenal a simple rule – when a new variant is discovered in Israel that is resistant to the vaccines, close down the country. This master plan has more holes than Swiss cheese, starting with the underlying tenet: We don’t know if Omicron is resistant to the vaccines. Preliminary evidence from South Africa suggests that Omicron might be more transmissible than previous variants.
While we know there are many mutations, in the case of the Omicron variant, we don’t yet know what their overall effect is. On the bright side, antibodies taken from people who were first naturally infected and then vaccinated were still able to neutralize a synthetic Omicron-type virus in the laboratory. That suggests a booster dose of an mRNA vaccine may still provide robust protection against Omicron.
One can only hope that Israel’s knee-jerk reaction will expire at the end of the 14 days, and that Christian tourists will enjoy a Christmas in the Holy Land. And that those tepid individuals praying that they can come to Israel later this month and in January will see the inside of Ben-Gurion Airport.
Airlines and hotels are petrified; tour guides and taxi drivers are one more despondent. The year 2022 is almost here; let’s try to bring some good cheer. Let us go back to the source of COVID-19 in the Middle Kingdom. As the famous proverb says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” To our leaders: If you build it, they will come. It is your job to build a system that both protects Israeli citizens as well as tourists.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem and a Director at Diesenhaus.
For questions and comments email him at [email protected]