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Counting on ‘Endemic’: The Travel Industry Readies for a Potentially New Phase - NEW YORK TIMES

Ceylan Yeginsu

Feb 6, 2022

A growing call to consider the coronavirus a permanent fixture in our lives is resonating among travel operators. But that would not necessarily mean the virus is no longer dangerous.

In Britain and Denmark most coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, including mask mandates; Austria and the Netherlands have eased lockdown measures despite surges in cases, and in late January, the European Union recommended that vaccinated residents should not be required to undergo testing or quarantine when traveling between the 27 member states.

In the United States, major travel industry groups have called on the federal government to eliminate the testing requirement for U.S.-bound vaccinated travelers, saying that the measures fail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The call to loosen pandemic restrictions and the actual relaxation of measures comes as health experts across the world have determined that, while the now-dominant Omicron variant is highly contagious, it is causing lower rates of severe disease, especially among people vaccinated and boosted. This has led to a growing chorus of voices — from the prime minister of Denmark to President Biden’s former pandemic advisers — calling for a change in approach to the virus, to accept it as a part of everyday life to be managed, not a deadly scourge requiring lockdowns and stringent preventive measures.

That message has been resonating in the world of travel and among industry representatives, who frequently borrow a public health term to make their case to ease travel restrictions.

“When I use the word pandemic, I think of the two years where we sheltered in place, but endemic is very similar to what I’m doing now — traveling for business as an entrepreneur, but also for vacation and seeing friends and family that I’ve missed,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, a co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, a New York-based travel consulting company.

If the coronavirus becomes endemic, it would be a permanent fixture of our lives, like the seasonal flu. But that would not necessarily mean it is no longer dangerous.

“Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people,” said Michael Ryan, the emergencies director for the World Health Organization last month, addressing questions about vaccine equity at the World Economic Forum. “Endemic in itself does not mean good — endemic just means it’s here forever.”

And in countries with low vaccination rates and high caseloads, the situation is not the same. Coronavirus measures have been reinstated in parts of North and West Africa where infections have surged in recent weeks. Only about 10 percent of the African continent’s population has been fully vaccinated. And many Asian nations — even those with high vaccination rates — remain largely closed for leisure travelers. Other countries that recently reopened, like Thailand and Vietnam, still have restrictions in place.

Still, the possible shift in mind-set — to learn to live with the virus — has given the travel industry in Europe and the United States a boost in recent weeks, as have the increasing numbers of travelers booking spring and summer trips. In a bimonthly travel sentiment survey taken in mid January by Longwoods International, a travel market research firm, of 1,000 Americans who traveled for business or pleasure before the pandemic, 91 percent of respondents have travel plans in the next six months, and 25 percent said that the pandemic is no longer influencing their decision to travel. In data recorded last week and to be released Tuesday, said Amir Eylon, president and chief executive of Longwoods International, 31 percent of respondents reported that the pandemic is no longer influencing their decision to travel.

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