An ever-growing roster of countries placing new testing requirements on Chinese travelers is sparking an outcry, particularly across Europe, but any calls to scale back pre-departure requirements will likely fall on deaf ears.
The recent relaxation of zero-Covid policies in China offered great hope to a corporate travel industry stymied by those rules and one waiting to bring China back into the fold to speed up its recovery. But the ensuing testing requirements being put in place now by countries will be a major setback and dent much-needed confidence, industry associations warn.
They believe that the growing number of restrictions on Chinese travelers represents a step backwards, ahead of an imminent proposal by the European Commission that could impose pre-departure Covid-19 testing on all 27 member countries.
On Wednesday, the commission’s Political Crisis Response unit met to thrash out the coordination of possible requirements for entry into the EU. The overwhelming majority of countries are in favor of pre-departure testing, according to reports.
“We are once again plunging back into a patchwork of unjustified and uncoordinated travel restrictions, which have no basis in scientific fact,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of Airports Council International Europe.
Japan also recently tightened its border controls for the neighboring country — ahead of the key date of Jan. 8, after which travelers will no longer need to quarantine when entering China. There are currently now no official restrictions on Chinese people going abroad but after this milestone it will be far easier for citizens to return.
Prior to the recent restrictions being imposed on Chinese travelers, which were prompted by rising numbers of infections in China, Beijing’s decision to relax its zero-Covid strategy was regarded as the removal of a final obstacle blocking the long-awaited return of international business travel.
Now there’s real concern this recovery will be hampered.
“The introduction of testing for passengers coming to the UK from China is a sucker punch to the entire travel industry,” said Clive Wratten, CEO of the UK’s Business Travel Association, after the British government announced on December 30 it would introduce testing on arrival. “Business travel was expected to take-off from January but this is a huge step backwards for customer and corporate confidence.”
The association wants the British government to instead apply an enhanced sequencing program to gather more data on any new variants.
The Global Business Travel Association is concerned by the lack of a unified response to treating travelers. If there was any lesson to be learned from 2020, it’s that the uncertainty factor was one of the biggest hindrances for companies to restart their travel programs.
“A consistent approach to testing requirements for business travelers from China would serve to bolster traveler confidence and lessen the risk of impacting a return to business travel from this important region,” said Catherine Logan, regional vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa. “It is vital to global economic recovery that we continue to keep international business travel routes open and this can be achieved in a manner that doesn’t hinder business nor compromise health and safety.”
Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, described the wave of restrictions as a knee-jerk response. “We have the tools to manage Covid-19 without resorting to ineffective measures that cut off international connectivity, damage economies and destroy jobs,” he said on Wednesday.
Airports Council International Europe also expressed “regret” over how some countries were imposing pre-departure or on-arrival testing on Chinese travelers.
“These unilateral actions are at odds with all the experience and evidence gained over the past three years. The ineffectiveness of international travel restrictions in preventing the spread of Covid-19 and its multiple variants of concern has been unequivocally recognised by both the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organisation,” it said in a statement.
The council thinks the focus should be on increasing genomic sequencing to identify new variants of the virus by testing wastewater from airports.
An Industry Kept Waiting
China’s absence continues to be felt.
“China is very quiet,” the global travel manager at a pharmaceutical company told Skift. “We only have four domestic bookings at the moment. It’s pretty much a no-go for the time being.”
Quizzed on how international travel was key to building back mid-week business across its hotel portfolio, Larry Cuculic, president and CEO at Best Western Hotels & Resorts, said he was excited about China’s reopening, but urged caution.
“We think Asia is a tremendous opportunity for the rebound and Chinese travel plays a major role in that,” he said in a recent media interview. “We understand China has lessened its restrictions, but you also have to understand that, while you can be optimistic in that regard, there will be some compression associated with lessening those restrictions, and you can see that happening already with the U.S., India, Japan and Italy putting in place testing requirements.”
American Express Global Business Travel also eagerly awaits the return of China, with CEO Paul Abbott revealing last year the destination once generated 5 percent of its sales.
“The effect of China, and Asia, opening up a lot more will be very significant for business travel,” Michael Riegel, general manager of corporate travel agency TripActions, said in an interview. “If we look at travel coming out of Europe, there are two big patterns: one is travel going to the U.S., one is travel going to Asia. So far we’ve been missing one bucket, and that’s going to change (the) patterns quite a lot, and we see that there are companies demanding this.”
The outcome of the European Commission’s meeting on Wednesday, where it will decide which entry requirements will be needed for 27 countries, stands to dictate the pace of recovery for many travel companies this year.
“China has historically been a significant market for our corporate clients and we welcome this as an important enabler to allow business travel to restart,” added Michael Healy, chief operating officer Europe at corporate travel agency CTM. “However, we remain cautious at this early stage given uncertainty around restrictions and associated travel risk.”