The aviation industry’s hopes of a surge in passenger numbers from China are being dashed by the growing number of countries imposing COVID measures on people traveling from there.
Airline and airport lobbies on Thursday issued a joint statement to ‘deplore’ Wednesday’s decision by EU countries to strongly recommend that travelers from China undergo a COVID test before arriving in Europe , calling it a “gut reaction”.
Airlines for Europe, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International said this was not in line with an assessment by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control concluding that the current outbreak of COVID in China is unlikely to affect the epidemiological situation in the EU.
The EU measures are part of a wider distrust of travelers from China as the number of coronaviruses soared after the government abandoned its earlier draconian zero COVID policy. The US, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the UK and Sweden have all said passengers will be required to take COVID tests; Germany joined the lawsuit on Thursday.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said Berlin would impose “at least a rapid test” before departure, as well as spot tests on some arriving passengers to check for new coronavirus variants.
That’s not good news for the aviation sector, which has seen the reopening of China’s huge market as the final piece of its pandemic recovery plan.
Capacity in the global airline industry hovered around 83% of its pre-pandemic level last year, with the Asian market, and China’s no-travel policy in particular, pushing that figure down. .
While the measures currently in place are a far cry from earlier pandemic lockdowns, they have still drawn a furious reaction from the industry.
“It is extremely disappointing to see this impulsive reintroduction of measures that have proven ineffective over the past three years,” IATA chief executive Willie Walsh said on Wednesday.
He called on governments to “base their decisions on ‘scientific facts’ rather than ‘science policies'”.
The industry also views the testing requirements as unfair; they pushed for alternative methods of checking for the virus – such as testing airport sewage – that are less restrictive for passengers.
Eric Drésin, secretary general of the European associations of travel agents and tour operators, said capitals are acting “more for populist reasons than to achieve public health objectives”.
The industry is concerned that the measures will scare off travellers.
“We all know that uncertainty prevents companies from planning, scheduling and selling trips and vacations,” Drésin said.
It is unclear whether the new measures will have an impact on the number of Chinese trips; Chinese tourists can still travel to most countries, provided they pass a test.
But travel expert John Strickland said the complexity of the COVID requirements “will act as a shock absorber”.
The nuances mean that in some countries travelers will need to provide a negative PCR test before boarding. In others, they might be asked to take a test upon arrival. There are also countries – like Japan – where travelers will need to quarantine if they test positive upon arrival.
In the UK, passengers arriving at Heathrow airport could be tested. In Manchester, they won’t.
Any dampened interest will deal a blow to Europe’s beleaguered travel sector. Strickland said search engines have proven “strong consumer interest in travel from China when the opportunity arises.”
Chinese tourists are important for the European economy.
“Not just in Paris or London or those traditional destinations. [Chinese travelers] go everywhere – they really want to enjoy all parts of the continent,” Drésin said.
tit for tat
Beijing has warned it may retaliate. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday that the government would “take countermeasures…according to the principle of reciprocity.”
But Strickland said it could backfire on China.
Retaliation “would be limited”, he said, because outbound travel from China is a much larger market than inbound travel.
“For now, European travel to China is expected to remain at low levels,” he said.