Travel limits squeeze Europe's tourism industry amid omicron fears
London — Travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus are hammering the already beleaguered travel and tourism industries and adding to the gloom in Europe in the midst of the crucial holiday season.
Travelers are rearranging or canceling trips because of tightening rules. Eurostar, which operates trains across the English Channel, sold out of tickets to France on Friday before new travel restrictions to and from Britain went into effect.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, although increasing evidence indicates it spreads more easily. While researchers race to figure out how severe it is and how well vaccines work against it, the uncertainty itself is also causing some to change their plans.
Amanda Wheelock, 29, a grad student at the University of Michigan, canceled a trip to France with her partner as cases spiked there. Even though the surge isn’t necessarily due to omicron, the uncertainty about the new variant, and a new requirement that all U.S. travelers have to test negative before flying back to the U.S., made her worry that the trip would be more stressful than fun.
Instead, she’s traveling to the Anchorage, Alaska, area to see friends. She feared that she would spend much of her trip trying to avoid getting infected — thus not able to take full advantage of being in France.
“A vacation with a lot of stress is probably not a great vacation,” said Wheelock, who is from Arvada, Colorado.
She is not alone. The Advantage Travel Group, which represents about 350 U.K. travel agents, said business had fallen by 40% in mid-December from a month earlier. Those numbers, including flights, cruise bookings and package holidays, add to the travel industry's existing slump, which had already seen business fall by two-thirds since the pandemic began, CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said.
“Our members are dealing with customers who are really nervous about traveling now,” she said “They’re really nervous about bookings for the New Year because they fear that there’s a risk that the government will make more knee-jerk reactions.”
Britain is experiencing one of the most dramatic surges, dealing a blow to pubs and restaurants that have seen mass cancellations of parties in the run-up to Christmas. Treasury Chief Rishi Sunak met with representatives of the hospitality sector on Thursday to hear their concerns about how they would make it through another season with slashed revenue.
Travel trade association Abta argued it deserved the same attention from the government. It demanded an “urgent meeting” with Sunak and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to discuss the sector’s "current financial situation and its pressing need for financial support."
"The government has recognized the plight of the U.K. hospitality sector, with trade down by 40% in December," chief executive Mark Tanzer said. “But at the same time, the travel industry, where income has been down by 78% this year, and further impacted by omicron restrictions since late November, continues to be ignored.”
Associated Press writer Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.