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OPINION

Why all roads lead to home

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaRunning with the herd now appears unlikely as strict international travel restrictions and variant strains upend conventional wisdom. But domestic travel and staycations are booming.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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That plane has flown - will normal travel return?

THat [plane has flown: While countries wrestle with green lanes and vaccine passports, new variants are making normal travel an ever distant dream. Can we get back to unencumbered wanderings?

MUCH has been written on travel bubbles, rapid antigen tests and vaccine passports. The English language has been greatly enriched by terms like PCR and PPE, both among the latest acronyms now resolutely lodged in our befuddled vocabulary. Thankfully we do not as yet have TB and RAT in casual discourse but the pundits will find a solution.

These acronyms spoon-feed science to us in bite-sized morsels. They make travellers sound like they know what they’re on about, hence the hasty adoption into living room conversation. PCR sounds so much better than polymerase chain reaction test. Few understand these alien terms and some circumvent the process entirely with false test and vaccination certificates (putting fellow travellers at risk). Hong Kong, for example, has baulked at recognising certifications from India.

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Acronyms are here to stay along with SARS-Cov-2, Covid-19, N95 (not a scenic highway), RNA, mRNA, and worrying variants like Alpha (UK), Beta (South Africa), Gamma (Brazil), Delta (India), and Mu (Colombia) – all badges of shame in the egregious mishandling of this pandemic.

Hotels and national tourism offices have been predicting the speedy return of travel ever since the Wuhan outbreak. Things will be normal soon and travel will rebound, say the experts. Bubbles will save us. Every bubble – from Hong Kong-Singapore, to trans-Tasman, to football and cricket – has burst with unfailing regularity. Now Lion City’s cautious but brave ‘non-reciprocal’ quarantine-free opening to vaccinated travellers from a few destinations is under threat from rising Covid cases.

{Another factor altering the much touted herd-immunity equation is changes in the behavioural patterns of fully vaccinated persons

The more technologically nimble or suggestible have plunged deep into the depths of Google – where no sane man has gone before – to emerge with fresh succour. Spicy South Indian rassam kills the virus. Eat sea lettuce. If detergent is unavailable, down ivermectin (an anti-parasitic drug for horses) or, simply slather your body with cow dung.  

A sanguine air is inbuilt in the travel industry’s DNA. After all, travel has proved remarkably resilient. It has rebounded from catastrophic tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, wars and even nuclear disasters. Chernobyl tours, perhaps fuelled by the gripping miniseries, are much the rage. Fukushima (save for three percent of the prefecture around the ill-fated reactors) is now deemed safe for visitors. And the Northern Marshal Islands (except for Bikini Atoll) are opening up as radiation levels from the post-war American tests subside.

We remain in denial. Travel, that simple indulgence we always took for granted, has been rudely snatched away. It is time to drop the rose tinted glasses and accept that carefree holidays are not about to return anytime soon. Scientists are broadly agreed that this coronavirus, like the flu, is here to stay. How this is to be safely managed is the key issue, not when we can get back to a Bacchanalian carouse.

We are being slowly but surely shoehorned into a highly restrictive travel regime that will become institutionalised, much like the invasive security searches and airport delays in the wake of 9/11. This time, unlike then, the enemy is invisible. A toxic mix of macho nationalist politics, online disinformation, religious obfuscation, vaccine hesitancy, and plain apathy are conspiring to make this a very long battle.

The 1918 Spanish Flu officially lasted two years though its effects were felt for three to five years. Subsequent global flu epidemics like the 1957 Asian Flu, the 1968 Hong Kong and China outbreak, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that started in the US, all ran from one to two years. Some of these have become seasonal viruses.

Zoonotic spillovers like Covid-19 with animal virus recombinants are a cause for serious concern. Though current vaccines have offered an extraordinarily stout defence, after nigh on two years the pandemic shows no signs of abating. The race is on to get to a point where the fully vaccinated and those with Covid antibodies account for about 90% of the global population, before fresh variants arrive with the ability to dodge existing remedies. At current rates of vaccination, this could take from three to five years, or much longer.

This is a near impossible task given the monopoly over vaccines by wealthy Western nations and the absence of means, will, or mechanisms for delivery in places like Africa and parts of Asia and South America. The earlier hypothetical 70% threshold for herd immunity is an ever-shifting mirage. Rapid mutations have sunk that hypothetical lifeboat.

Another factor altering the herd-immunity equation is changes in the behavioural patterns of fully vaccinated persons. “If before the vaccine [assuming 90% protection] you met one person, and now with vaccines you meet 10 people, you’re back to square one,” Dr Dvir Aran from the Israel Institute of Technology told Nature magazine.

But while international travel remains in flux, domestic travel has rebounded in countries like India, Russia, China, USA, Argentina and Brazil and city staycations are keeping hotels afloat. Intra-regional travel in Europe is growing. The US is opening up. Meanwhile the search is on for safer, healthier open-air surrounds close to nature. This has boosted beach escapes like Phuket, Samui, Goa, and Hainan with varying protocols, or none. In southern Vietnam, the fast-developing island of Phu Quoc, is seen as a safer entry point for international travellers with a modified ‘sandbox’ model in the Phuket mould. Nha Trang may throw open its doors by December.

In a city like Hong Kong, hiking has exploded. The rediscovery of home has its own rewards. The few that venture abroad will need to put up with increasingly tedious procedures, travel uncertainties, quarantines, higher cost (and not just for luxury), masks, and social distancing. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.

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